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Mexican Americans Show Educational Progress Across Generations When Measurement Limitations Are Overcome

Brian Duncan, Jeffrey Grogger, Ana Sofia León, Stephen J. Trejo

Introduction

Understanding how immigrants progress in educational attainment across generations is crucial for assessing the long-term impact of immigration on society. On average, second-generation immigrants– the U.S.-born children of foreign-born migrants to the United States–meet or exceed the schooling level of the typical American. However, Mexican Americans do not follow this pattern. This is perhaps not surprising given the low levels of schooling brought to the U.S. by the typical Mexican immigrant. It would be difficult to eliminate these large schooling or other socioeconomic deficits in a single generation.

What is more concerning is that much of the existing evidence shows that Mexican Americans’ educational progress seems to stall after the second generation. This brief reports on a recent study1 that explores whether educational progress for Mexican Americans indeed stalls or whether these findings are, in fact, the result of the way Mexican Americans are measured in standard data sources. The authors focus on education because it is a fundamental determinant of economic success, social status, health, family stability, and life opportunities. 

Standard data sources used to measure generational progress rely on respondents self-identifying their racial or ethnic origin. But because assimilation and intermarriage can cause ethnic attachments to fade across generations, using these subjective measures of racial/ethnic identification might miss a significant portion of the later-generation descendants of immigrants. This phenomenon, known as ethnic attrition, can hide evidence of generational progress, particularly if certain groups of later-generation immigrants (e.g., those who are more socioeconomically successful) become less likely to self-identify as Mexican American or Hispanic. The problem of ethnic attrition is especially problematic if the third generation cannot be distinguished from higher generations (a “third+” generation; see Box).

To overcome the data limitations of subjective measures of racial/ethnic identification, the authors use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) that reports the countries of birth of the respondents as well as the respondents’ parents and grandparents.

Key Findings

  • When the country of birth for respondents, parents, and grandparents is available and used to measure immigrant generation, Mexican Americans show educational improvements between the 1.5 and third generations (Figure 1, left panel).
  • However, these improvements are hidden when immigrant generation is measured using ethnic self-identification, like in standard data sources (Figure 1, right panel). That is, when third-generation and higher-generation individuals are grouped together into a third+ generation, it looks like there is no improvement in schooling for Mexican Americans after the second generation.
  • Substantial improvements in cognitive ability and earnings between second- and third-generation Mexican Americans were also found.
  • Third-generation Mexican Americans complete high school at almost the same rate as other Americans. However, far fewer Mexican Americans attend and complete college than Americans in other race-ethnic groups.

Defining Immigrant Generations

OBJECTIVE MEASURES

1.5 generation: Respondent was born in Mexico, came to the United States before age 16, and does not have a U.S.-born parent.

2nd generation: Respondent was born in the United States and at least one parent born in Mexico.

3rd generation: Respondent and both parents were born in the United States and at least one grandparent born in Mexico.

SUBJECTIVE MEASURES

3rd+ generation: Respondent and both parents were born in the United States and either at least one grandparent born in Mexico or the respondent or at least one parent self-identifies as Mexican or Mexican American.

4th+ generation: Respondent, both parents, and all grandparents were born in the United States and the respondent or at least one parent self-identifies as Mexican or Mexican American.


When generation is measured objectively, average years of schooling increases for Mexican American between the 1.5 and 3rd generations

 

When country of birth for respondents, parents, and grandparents is available and used to identify who is of Mexican descent, Mexican Americans show educational improvements between the 1.5 and third generations (left panel). However, these improvements are hidden when ethnic self-identification is used to identify who is of Mexican descent (right panel).

Policy Implications

Limitations of standard data sources incorrectly suggest that Mexican Americans’ educational improvements stall after the second generation. Data that overcome these limitations instead show that progress continues into the third generation. Knowing the true extent and pace of generational progress for Mexican Americans is essential for designing and assessing policies that seek to hasten such progress. In addition, future progress hinges on finding ways to improve the participation and success of Mexican Americans in higher education.

Reference

1Duncan, B., Grogger, J., Leon, A.S., & Trejo, S.J. (2020). New evidence of generational progress for Mexican American. Labour Economics 62(1017771).

Suggested Citation

Duncan, B., Grogger, J., Leon, A.S., & Trejo, S.J. (2020). Mexican Americans show educational progress across generations when measurement limitations are overcome. PRC Research Brief 5(5). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/9157.

About the Authors

Brian Duncan is a professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, Jeffrey Grogger is Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, Ana Sofia León is an assistant professor of economics at Universidad Diego Portales, Chile; and Stephen J. Trejo (trejo@austin.utexas.edu) is a professor of economics at The University of Texas at Austin and a faculty research associate at the Population Research Center.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Russell Sage Foundation (Award Number 93–16–03) and an infrastructure grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2C HD042849), awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Russell Sage Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.


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