The annual Minorities in Higher Education Annual Status Report issued Wednesday by the American Council on Education found that the number of minority high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 24 attending U.S. schools jumped from nearly 2 million in 1980-81 to 4.3 million in 2000-01.
Despite the gains, the ACE said only 40 percent of African-Americans and 34 percent of Hispanics attend college, compared to 46 percent of whites, continuing a disparity that was even worse in the late 1980s but still persists.
William Harvey, the author of the study, said the findings are a reflection of American society.
"The gaps relate to some of the real fundamental social and economic conditions in this country," said Harvey, the director of the Office of Minorities in Education for the ACE, a Washington-based umbrella organization representing the nation's largest institutions of higher education.
"We know that individuals in underserved communities are less likely to have the preparation in elementary and secondary school to prepare them for college. And those communities are clustered among folks of color."
During the 20 years starting in 1980, the ACE said black enrollment grew by 56 percent to more than 1.7 million, while Hispanic enrollment tripled to 1.5 million.
The 1 million Asian-Americans attending college in 2000 also tripled the 1980 enrollment.
Overall, 15.3 million students attended college classes last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The ACE said Hispanic and African-American women accounted for some of the most dramatic minority gains at both two-year and four-year institutions.
In 1980, 28 percent of female African-American high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 24 attended college. Two decades later, the enrollment among African-American women stood at 42 percent.
The participation rates for male African-American high school graduates were not as dramatic, climbing from 30 percent to 37 percent.
In 1980, 27 percent of Hispanic women between the ages of 18 to 24 with high school diplomas were enrolled in college. Twenty years later, that number had increased by 10 percentage points to 37 percent.
The percentage of Hispanic men between the ages of 18 to 24 with a high school education attending college remained stagnant over the same period of time, 31 percent.
Harry Pachon, the president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, said the increased presence of Latino women on campuses is part of the mainstreaming of Hispanics into American culture.
"The same currents that have affected feminism as a whole have affected the Latina community," said Pachon, whose Southern California organization advances issues and policies that impact the Hispanic community. "There's a big transition that has occurred among the immigrant population adopting the values of the majority society."
By Steve Giegerich