After all the bad news about Latino academic achievement, here’s a ray of hope: College enrollment among Latinos ages 18 to 24 sky-rocketed 24% last year, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, leading to an all-time high in the total numbers of Latino college students.

Even better: Pew cites improved educational attainment—not the brute force of population growth—as the engine behind this change. During this time, the young Latino population grew by seven percent—a healthy increase, but not the high-step that the enrollment rates represent.

Meanwhile, says Richard Fry, the lead author of the report and a Senior Research Associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, we might be seeing a silver lining to the dark cloud of the economy.

“Frankly, some of these young Latinos would probably rather be working,” he says. “But they can’t find jobs, so they figure they might as well go to college and improve their skill set.”

Between 2009 and 2010, the numbers of Latinos enrolled in college grew by about 349,000 far outstripping the increase of 88,000 more black college students and 43,000 more Asian-American students seen that year. The number of white college students actually fell 320,000.

These changes mean that, for the first time, Latino students outnumbered black students on campus—though not in the halls of the nation’s four-year colleges, where black students are still the largest minority group (albeit by a shrinking margin).

Fry says the the economy—or rather, how it has affected different parts of the country—may be one of the factors behind why the number of, say, black students in college, while continuing to rise steadily, as it has for years, did not surge like Latino numbers.

“My hunch—and it’s just a hunch, because it wasn’t part of the study—is that because large numbers of Latinos live in some of the states that were hardest hit by the housing crisis, such as California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida, they might be experiencing the economy different than other ethnic groups,” he says.

Much of the growth in Latino enrollment has been through community colleges. Last fall, 56% of Latino students were enrolled at four-year institutions, proportionally less than Asian (78%), white (73%), and black (63%) students.

Not all the news is sunny: While enrollment of Latinos is at a record 32%, young black (38%), white (43%) and Asian (62%) adults are still more likely to get a higher education.

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