Latinos Top Minority College Enrollment, Pew Hispanic Center Finds

** ADVANCE FOR RELEASE MONDAY, JUNE 7, AND THEREAFTER ** In this photo taken May 22, 2010, Brownie Sibrian, waits to enter a Latino graduation celebration, sponsored by the Latino Student Assn. and MEChA, about a week before graduation, on the campus of Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. AP Photo/Reed Saxon) (National Journal)

In 2011, Latinos for the first time became the largest minority group in four-year colleges and universities across the United States, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report.

The number of 18- to-24-year-old Latinos enrolled in college surpassed 2 million in 2011, accounting for 16.5 percent of the student population. The increase may be associated as much with population growth as with modest gains in high school graduation rates, according to the report released on Monday by the nonpartisan research center.

High school graduation rates reached an all-time high for Latinos in 2011, the Pew study found. The number of Latinos earning a high school diploma or General Education Development certificate increased to 76 percent in 2011, up from 73 percent in 2010, researchers said. Nearly 47 percent of those graduates were enrolled in a two-year community college or four-year undergraduate program.

The proportion of Latino enrollment in colleges and universities has increased progressively since the 1972, with noticeable dips in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the overall population was matriculating in large numbers, according to a 1997 joint analysis by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The sharp rise in tuition after 1982 is one explanation for the trends. By 1994, the average price tag for a four-year private university education was $13,874, according to  the 1997 study. Tuition at public institutions, while significantly less, experienced a similar ratio of increase. Latinos have long cited costs as a barrier to pursuing college degrees.

With regard to race, Hispanics joined whites in enrolling more seeking higher education. The white, non-Hispanic college student population grew by about 3 percent to 7.9 million from 2010 to 2011; by comparison, enrollment among blacks and Asians fell by 3 percent and 8 percent, respectively, according to the Pew Hispanic Center report.

Despite the college-enrollment peak for Latinos, their graduation rate remains low. In 2010 of all four-year undergraduate degrees earned, only 9 percent of enrolled Latinos completed a bachelor's, compared to 10 percent of blacks and 71 percent of whites. About 7 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students earned a four-year undergraduate degree, the report shows.

Nowhere are the signs of the Latino population's growth more acute than in public schools. More than 12 million Latino students attended U.S. public schools in grades  pre-K through 12 in October 2011, representing about 24 percent of the overall total, according to the Pew study. By comparison, the Latino percentage in 1990 was only almost 9 percent.

The Census Bureau expects Latino youth to comprise one-third of the nation's children ages 3 to 17 by 2036.