By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The number of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities surged to an all-time high last year because a rise in enrollment by minorities, especially Hispanics, offset a sharp decline among whites, according to a new study.
Using the latest Census data, researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center found that college enrollment among Hispanic young adults alone jumped 24 percent in 2010.
That rise means Hispanics, who have been the largest U.S. minority group since the 2000 U.S. Census, now represent the largest minority group on college campuses, outnumbering blacks for the first time ever.
Richard Fry, the Pew researcher who authored the study, said a number of factors appeared to be at play in the surge in Hispanic enrollment, including increased high school graduation rates.
"Historically, Hispanics haven't been very good about finishing high school," Fry said. "When they finish high school, they haven't been good about enrolling in college. That's changing."
But he said the downturn in the U.S. economy, which another Pew Research Center report over the summer found was disproportionately hard on Hispanic families, may also be playing a role. Students who might have entered the work force after high school are going into community colleges for additional vocational training.
Overall, college-age whites still outnumber minorities on college campuses. Of the 12.2 million young adults enrolled in college in 2010, 7.7 million were white, down from more than 8 million in 2009.
But college-age Hispanics now represent 1.8 million, or 15 percent, of the young adults enrolled in U.S. college, according to the Pew analysis, while blacks account for 1.7 million and Asians account for about 800,000.
Blacks remain the largest minority group in four-year colleges because nearly half of Hispanics are enrolled in two-year community colleges. Fry said it is only a matter of time before Hispanics emerge the No. 1 minority group there as well.
"It's not going to take long," he said.
(Editing by Greg McCune)