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Hispanic Gains Push U.S. College Student Enrollment to Record

A surge in Hispanic enrollment brought the number of U.S. college students ages 18 to 24 to a record high last year even as the number of young whites at universities fell, a Pew Hispanic Center study found.

Hispanic students in that age range rose 24 percent from 2009 to 1.8 million, making them the largest minority group at U.S. colleges, according to a study released today by the center, part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center. Total 18-to-24-year-old enrollment was 12.2 million, while the number of white students declined 4 percent to 7.7 million, the organization reported.

The gain in Hispanic enrollment, outstripping the 7 percent increase in U.S. Hispanic population during the period, may be linked to rising high school completion in the group, said Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the center who led the study. A tighter job market following the recession that began in 2007 may also be prompting more students to pursue higher education, he said.

“There may be other factors here that we can’t see,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview. “This is an inkling that young Hispanics are narrowing the educational gap compared to white students, getting exposure to college, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Hispanics are a relatively young population, and an increasing percentage has been reaching college age, said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based research group.

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In addition, “we’re finding that more Latino students are graduating from high school after taking a curriculum that would make them college-ready,” she said.

The rise in college-ready Hispanics may also be linked to a higher percentage of U.S.-born high school students, compared to immigrants, Santiago said. U.S.-born Hispanics are half as likely to drop out of high school as those born in other countries, she said.

Students 18 to 24 years old were 60 percent of the last year’s total of 20.3 million in U.S. colleges, the study found.

The drop among white college students ages 18 to 24 occurred as the U.S. population in that range fell from a 2008 peak of 17.8 million to 17.7 million in October 2010, Fry said.

“The reason that there’s fewer of them in college is that there’s fewer of them,” he said. “But there are other factors in the decline that we don’t know.”

Hispanics have long been one of the least educated U.S. population groups, Fry said. More research will be needed to see whether the higher enrollment numbers translate into more Hispanics with degrees, and better job prospects, he said.

“What employers like to see is sheepskins, and we don’t know if this will lead to sheepskins yet,” he said.

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