WASHINGTON — Hispanic population growth and improved high school completion rates helped Latino young people become the largest minority group on college campuses and a fourth of the public school population last year, according to a Pew Hispanic report released Monday.

The center's analysis of Census data shows more than 2 million Hispanics ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college last year, making up a record 16.5 percent share of enrollments in that age group at two-year and four-year universities.

Simultaneously, for the first time, one fourth of the pre-K through 12th grade population was Latino, the center said.

The Hispanic share of the public school population had been inching up as the enrollments of children in pre-K and kindergarten reached one quarter Hispanic over the past six years.

The elementary school population also became one quarter Hispanic last year, nudging the overall pre-K through 12th grade to about one quarter Hispanic last year, up from 23.3 in 2010.

Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said in the next few years the high school population will also reach that mark.

Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States numbering about 52 million last year, according to the Census. Lopez said the rapid growth in the population has contributed to the increased numbers of Latinos in college, along with higher high school completion rates.

The number of Hispanics aged 18 to 24 years old grew from 1.3 million in 1972 to 6 million in 2011. Also last year, 76 percent of Hispanics in that age group finished high school, three percent higher than in 2010.

Latino population growth largely drove the increases in share of Hispanics in the public school population. One in four babies born in the U.S. are Hispanic, according to an earlier Pew Hispanic Center study. The Census projects that by 2036, Hispanics will compose one third of children ages 3 to 17.

"Both of these are trends that have been coming for a while ... It's a trend that's been on its way," Lopez said.

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