Important among the determining factors of migration is the perception migrants have of their children’s future. Many Dominicans migrate with the goal of educating their children, so the children can earn university degrees, become professionals, and escape the transgenerational poverty of their families. The reality of the situation, however, is usually at odds with the ideal. The impediments are multiple: poor preparation for higher education in public schools, frequent drop-out, parents’ inability to afford higher education even after migration, inadequate training at universities, and the unavailability of jobs after graduation.

In the Dominican Republic as in other countries, educational attainment and poverty are closely related. Poor Dominicans are trapped in a vicious cycle: poverty results in low educational attainment, and low educational attainment perpetuates poverty. In 2000, average completion rates for Dominicans included the following: 26 percent had no schooling, 10 percent had completed high school, and the overall average schooling was 5 years. In a report published in 2005, 50 percent of Dominican students completed four years of school, 22 percent completed eight years, and 10 percent completed high school.[1]

The low rates of completion are partially a consequence of many parents’ attitudes toward education, which of course affect the attitudes of their children. My informants often attributed low educational attainment to el descuido de los padres, which indicates a lack of parental supervision. A group of teachers I interviewed in a village school was unambiguous in its assessment: parents do not value education, do not help students with their homework, and do not motivate their children to learn. The school itself and its furnishings were in lamentable condition hardly conducive to education, and the facility had one broken portable toilet—the kind used in the United States at fairs and construction sites—for the entire student body and faculty. Many of the students live some two miles from the school, it rains frequently, and lacking any parental facilitation the students arrive, as the teachers put it, “alone and wet.” Chencho’s daughters, who are good students and have responsible parents, hitchhike daily to another school, which is about a half-hour from their home.

As summarized succinctly in a United Nations Development Program report, “All forms of measurement indicate that the Dominican educational system is lacking in quality.” The Dominican Republic’s Office of Human Development added that the teachers themselves are part of a more comprehensive structural problem: “A cycle is created in which the low training of the teachers is reinforced by their low salaries, which in turn are used to justify deficient performance and few demands, as much by the administrators of the teachers as by the teachers of the students.”[2]

A high rate of drop-out is a predictable consequence. The contributing factors include students’ low valuing of education, low motivation, insufficient appreciation of the relation between education and long-term goals, and, quite to the contrary, realization that there is little opportunity for employment after graduation. One migrant saved from a sinking yola explained, “I dropped out of high school in the second year. What good is an education if there are no jobs?” Against the background of these contributing factors, drop-out is precipitated most immediately by relationships and by a need or desire to work.[3]

Drop-out for jobs often occurs because parents require additional income to meet daily living expenses. Many male students drop-out because they are more attracted to immediate income, however meager, than to the long-term educational commitment that might or might not lead to stable employment. Drop-out in these cases can occur in increments: students accept odd jobs, progressively miss more school, get left behind, and finally are demoralized and never return.

Others students are adrift—“They don’t want to study, they don’t want to work,” Ramona said—and without self-motivation or parental encouragement they are socialized by peers and gravitate toward petty crime. Amado remarked that he hopes his children will be girls, because boys are only interested in quick money through delinquency. Consequently, he said, “there’s a better chance that a daughter will have a future.”

Many girls drop out of school when they begin a relationship, however, usually after pregnancy or because a domineering man forces the confinement of his spouse to a controlled environment. As soon as a girl becomes fourteen or fifteen, Marta explained, she enters a relationship, gets pregnant year after year, and loses any interest in or hope of returning to school. “Everything ends there,” Marta concluded.

The cycle thus continues, with drop-out, sporadic under-employment, and youthful childbearing undermining the chances for advancement. Young parents with insufficient means and parenting skills to provide adequately for their children’s development engender new generations that repeat the same patterns, and this intergenerational transmission of poverty and of educational underperformance is conducive to migration that has—precisely, paradoxically—education among its goals.[4]

Migration is regarded as a cycle-breaking solution because it provides, in theory, the income to subsidize education (replacing child-labor contributions to family income) and to meet education-associated expenses (notebooks, clothes, and food are often mentioned). These gains are offset, however, by the loss of an engaged and pro-education parent. When I asked the teachers at the village school if parental migration resulted in better education for children, the principal responded: “I don’t think so. And the children who aren’t with their parents aren’t as successful and don’t perform as well in school.” A guidance counselor added, “Often the grandparents [who care for children when a parent or parents are abroad] don’t know how to read or write, so they can’t help with homework.” She later added that a positive parental presence “is the most important thing,” because “when children feel they have the support of their parents they are more successful educationally.”

Similar observations are reported by empirical studies. “Parental absence as a result of migration may translate into less parental inputs into education acquisition and may also require remaining children to undertake housework or work to help meeting short-term labor and cash shortages.” As a consequence of parental migration and of anticipated migration by the children themselves, “children in migrant households are less likely to be attending school and complete less total years of schooling than children in non-migrant households.” A Dominican migrant in Spain described educational demotivation as a consequence of children’s imminent migration to rejoin their mothers: “they don’t want to study because they are leaving soon.” Dominican children with undocumented parents abroad are less likely to anticipate imminent migration, but the other demotivating factors obtain.[5]

Among my informants, with few exceptions, education was valued in the abstract as a means of economic advancement but the daily maintenance—expenses, homework, guidance—was difficult. In most cases the goals of high-school completion and higher education were eventually abandoned. Many of my informants first migrated to work abroad and now struggle financially at home with the aspiration of sending their children to universities, but most know that they could never afford it. Rubén has steady employment as the driver of a guagua (van for public transportation) and has a dream for his thirteen-year-old daughter and other children. “I’m working really hard so she can become a professional, a doctor or engineer, so that later my children can help me out. My goal is that my kids and their kids will study, because it’s the easiest way of making a living honestly.” Like most poor Dominicans, Rubén views education vocationally and his labor in support of education as an investment in the family’s future. Rubén also realizes, however, that the education of his children is unlikely. Given the high cost of living in relation to low income, he said, “that future will never be realized. They have to go to the university, but how will I send them?”

Gregorio had a similar story, but his manner of relating it revealed in brief a common pattern: the survival of a belief despite expression of an awareness that undermines it. Perhaps that subjunctive approach to the future leaves possibilities open and provides solace through hope. The future that Gregorio wants for his twelve-year-old son “is for him to be an architect. I’m a construction worker. And the architects, I see that they are people who make a lot of money, and they don’t have to work too hard, so I want my José to be an architect.” Gregorio explained that to become an architect his son would have to attend a university, “but those studies cost a lot. That’s what I’m for, and I, unfortunately, don’t have those resources. But I would like it if he were an architect.”

Parents like Rubén and Gregorio struggle at home and abroad but find their efforts frustrated at every turn. This occurs because the problems they attempt to resolve individually—child by child, family by family—require structural solutions beyond their means, at national and international levels.

Even when poor Dominicans manage to study at universities they confront challenges that are formidable. Theoretically a given course of study takes four years, but the period extends far beyond that because the required courses—including prerequisites—are offered infrequently. The anticipated income is thus postponed, parents’ resources are strained or depleted,  and students who work to support themselves or to supplement parental support find their employment and educational demands in conflict. In some cases, despite a student’s perseverance, the university programs are so inadequate that graduates are insufficiently trained to practice the profession.[6]

Studies are frequently interrupted when university students enter relationships and incur additional expenses, such as children, that make education-related expenses unfeasible. Gordito explained that the university is unaffordable even when it is free. “You can’t spend the two-hundred pesos [about $5.75] that you have in your pocket to go to Nagua twice a week while your wife and kids have nothing to eat.” Nor does the university in Nagua offer all degree programs; medicine, for example, requires entirely unaffordable relocation to Santo Domingo. Other informants mention the high cost of books and the loss of income when classes and studying take precedence over work.

More disheartening is the lack of employment upon graduation. Morena, for example, became a nurse but for lack of jobs said, “I’m not working and never have worked.” The ideal of many parents is that their children become lawyers, because they view that as a particularly lucrative profession, but few anticipate that the son or daughter will be unable to find employment as an attorney. I asked one mother if there were jobs for lawyers upon graduation, and she responded, “There must be, because there are a lot of lawyers.” When I checked that point with the human resources department at a prominent Dominican law firm, the response verified only her second clause. “In the Dominican Republic there are about 40,000 lawyers, that is to say, a quantity similar to the number of lawyers in France. Consequently, the honest response would be no, it is not easy to get work as a lawyer in the Dominican Republic.”[7]

Some migrants have better luck than Rubén, Gregorio, and the countless other Dominicans who struggle, maybe futilely, to escape poverty through education. Migrants most prone to success are those who have legal residence abroad and consequently access to better income and to foreign universities. As expressed by Casilda, who arrived to the United States in 1961, “many mothers came here as maids and their daughters are doctors, university professors.”[8]


[1] Regarding the correlation between poverty and low levels of education, see for example Banco Central de la República Dominicana, Encuesta nacional de gastos e ingresos de los hogares, octubre 1997-septiembre 1998, volume 5 (Santo Domingo, 1999), 24; United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report: Dominican Republic 2008 (Santo Domingo, 2008), 37; and David De Ferranti, et al., Inequality in Latin America: Breaking with History? (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2004), 67 and 177. The 2000 statistics are from De Ferranti, 417. The 2005 report is Dominican Republic, Oficina de Desarrollo Humano, Informe nacional de desarrollo humano: hacia una inserción mundial incluyente y renovada (Santo Domingo, 2005), 8. For other statistics on school enrollment, see United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report: Dominican Republic 2008 (Santo Domingo, 2008), 24; and Population Council, “The Adolescent Experience In-Depth: Using Data to Identify and Reach the Most Vulnerable Young People: Dominican Republic 2007” (New York, 2009), 20 and 30.

[2] The first quoted passage is from United Nations Development Program, 37. The second quoted passage is from Dominican Republic, Oficina de Desarrollo Humano, 8.

[3] The quoted passage is in Juan O. Tamayo, “Desperation, Death, Mystery Mark Dominican Voyage at Sea,” Miami Herald (March 10, 2000). Translation modified.

[4] See Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano, República Dominicana 2008. Desarrollo humano, una cuestión de poder (Santo Domingo:, 2008), 366; Amartya K. Sen, “Summary: Investing in Early Childhood,” in Escaping the Poverty Trap: Investing in Children in Latin America, ed. Ricardo Morán (Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank, 2003), 62; and Ricardo Morán, “Early Childhood Investment and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty,” in Morán, 1 and  9-10.

[5] The first two quoted passages are from David McKenzie and Hillel Rapoport, “Can Migration Reduce Educational Attainment? Evidence from Mexico,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3952 (June 2006), 3 and 24. See 26-27. On 21-22: “Being in a migrant household is estimated to significantly lower the probability of attending school by 16 percentage points for 12 to 15 year-old males, 21 percentage points for 16 to 18 year-old males, and 20 percentage points for 16 to 18 year-old females.” See Douglas S. Massey, “The Age of Extremes: Concentrated Affluence and Poverty in the Twenty-First Century,” Demography 33/4 (1996): 408-409.

The third quoted passage is from Gonzalo Ramírez de Haro, Efectos de la migración internacional en las comunidades de origen del suroeste de la República Dominicana (Santo Domingo: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia, Sección Nacional de República Dominicana, 2009), 165.

[6] For a comment on the quality of the programs in relation to post-graduation incompetence, see the interview with Frank Moya Pons in Erasmo Lara, Diálogo sobre el futuro dominicano (Santo Domingo: FLACSO, 2004), 224.

[7] For another example of a professional who cannot survive on her salary—an economist supplementing income by selling clothes at a flea market—see Carmen Sarmiento García’s film Dominicans (Women of Latin America Series, Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004).

[8] Casilda Luna interview, District of Columbia Public Library, Martin Luther King Junior Memorial Library, Washingtoniana Collection, Oral History Project 2, Beacon College, Celebración de la Mujer Latina, 3.