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Latinos May Be More Educated, Wealthier: Here's Why We Don't Know It

New research finds that Latinos in the United States may be more educated and have higher earnings than what current demographic data suggest.
Sponsors for Educational Opportunity Scholars
File photo of students at the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity Scholars.Bethany Bandera

U.S. Latinos may be more educated and have higher earnings than what current numbers suggest, and new research explores why.

There are individuals who have Latino ancestors, but do not self-identify as Hispanic in national demographic surveys. Therefore, these people are not included in the overall U.S. Latino population, according to Stephen Trejo, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who co-authored a research paper on the topic.

This phenomenon — often referred to as ethnic attrition — is more common among second- and higher-generation Latinos who also tend to be more educated and have higher earnings than their counterparts.

As a result “we’re probably understating the educational progress” of Hispanics in the U.S., said Trejo to NBC News Latino. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a good idea of the magnitude of this because the data that we have isn’t perfect,” he added.

While 99 percent of first-generation Latinos identify as such, it drops to 93 percent in the second generation and 82 percent in the third generation, according to Trejo's findings. And second- and third-generation Latinos who did not identify as Hispanic were more educated than their peers - by an average of 9 months for the second generation and about 10 months for the third, the study found.

RELATED: How Are Self-Identified 'White' Latinos Seen by Others?

The research paper bases its findings on 2003-2013 data from the Current Population Survey. It is one of the few national surveys that collect information about the countries where each respondent’s parents were born.

Most national surveys ask respondents to self-identify their race and ethnicity. But according to Trejo, there are no surveys that ask respondents in what countries their grandparents were born, forcing researchers to use other measures to identify third-generation Hispanics.

Trejo, a third-generation Latino, said he identifies as Hispanic but can see why others don’t. His father was born in the U.S. to two Mexican immigrants, and his mother had European ancestors.

“I have some Mexican attachment, but I don’t think my kids feel particularly Mexican even though they have the Hispanic last name,” he said, adding that he married a Jewish woman who’s non-Hispanic. “I think the attachment fades, especially when there’s more intermarriage in the family.”

Trejo said he chose to work on the research paper because he thought it was “puzzling” to see there’s little educational progress between second- and third-generation Hispanics, even though there’s significant educational progress between first- and second-generation Hispanics.

“I started thinking about this possibility that the data we have for third- and higher-generation Hispanics isn’t perfect and that there might be some people missing from the data,” he said.

RELATED: Latino Education Gains Are Encouraging: New Report

Mark Hugo López, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, said what he finds most interesting about the research paper’s findings is that “the immigrant story of Hispanics really seems to be one that matches the story of other immigrants, where you see continual progress from generation to generation.”

López added that the research paper’s findings “tell us a lot about the ways in which the Hispanic community is changing.”

Some of the findings he noted are the intermarriage rates among Hispanics and how more Hispanic parents are having children with non-Hispanics.

“That to me is really interesting, and it does raise questions about where Hispanic identity might be in another 20 to 50 years,” he said.

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