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Latinos now outnumber African Americans at college

The number of Latino students enrolled at U.S.

The number of Latino students enrolled at U.S. colleges has surpassed the number of African American students on campus for the first time, researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center have found.

Latino college enrollment surged 24% last fall, according to the center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data gathered in October 2010. College-age Hispanics now represent 15 percent, or 1.8 million, of the young adults enrolled in U.S. colleges, while black students account for 1.7 million and Asians account for about 800,000, Reuters reports.

African Americans remained the largest minority group in four-year colleges because nearly half of all Hispanic students attended two-year community colleges.

Overall, college-age whites are still the largest population on college campuses. Of the 12.2 million young adults enrolled in college in 2010, 7.7 million were white, the Pew study said.

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Several factors are behind the growing numbers of Latino college students, education experts explained.

Hispanics are a relatively young population, and an increasing percentage has been reaching college age, Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Washington-based research group Excelencia in Education, told Bloomberg News. In addition, she said, “we’re finding that more Latino students are graduating from high school after taking a curriculum that would make them college-ready.”

Richard Fry, the Pew researcher who authored the study, said the downturn in the U.S. economy might be inspiring Latino students to go to community colleges for more vocational training if they can’t find jobs after high school, Reuters reports.

Latino interest in higher education is good news for U.S. colleges, since white student enrollment is declining. White student enrollment decreased from 8 million to 7.7 million from 2009 to 2010, according to Pew. Yet increases in minority student enrollment pushed the number of 18- to 24-year-old college students to a record high in 2010. (Young black college enrollment increased by 5% and young Asian college enrollment by 6%, the Pew study said.)

At many colleges in the South and West, Jim Hundrieser, a vice president at education consultants Noel-Levitz in Colorado, told the Wall Street Journal, “Hispanic enrollment is going to be key to fiscal health.”