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Latino identity in the U.S. is complicated. So complicated that, even when the U.S. Census tried to add a separate "ethnicity" category to its surveys early last decade, the agency realized the change was inadequate, and the bureau is currently in the process of reforming its racial and ethnic categories again.

In any event, these complications appear to have had an effect on measuring Latinos' academic success. In a new paper from two economists published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Latino academic achievement (and overall quality of life) is shown to have been understated as a result of the way Latinos, especially second- and third-generation Latinos, self-identify on Census surveys.

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The economists call this phenomenon "ethnic attrition," which they define as later generations no longer identifying with their immigrant-parents' ethnicity, mostly thanks to intermarriage. From the Washington Post:

In fact, new immigrants may be assimilating a lot faster than than we had ever thought. A new study this week from economists Brian Duncan, of the University of Colorado, and Stephen Trejo of University of Texas, Austin finds that the descendents of immigrants from Latin-American and Asian countries quickly cease to identify as Hispanic or Asian on government surveys.

According to the authors, these are mostly children of interracial couples that aren’t writing down their diverse heritages. Mixed marriages are increasingly common in America — Pew finds that about 26 percent of Hispanics marry a non-Hispanic these days, and 28 percent of Asians marry a non-Asian.

"Ethnic attrition generates measurement biases that vary across national origin groups in direction as well as magnitude," they write. "Correcting for these biases is likely to raise the socioeconomic standing of the U.S.-born descendants of Hispanic immigrants," they write.

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Here are the results, measured in years of schooling, comparing responses from second and third generation Latinos.

Trejo/Duncan

By contrast, this same ethnic attrition phenomenon may be overstating the achievement for people of Asian descent:

Duncan/Trejo

With these findings, it seems like statisticians might have to come up with better ways to measure success among minority groups.

(H/T Quartz)

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.