SAN FRANCISCO -- Marialena Rivera learned a lesson growing up in San Antonio, Texas, when her family struggled to make ends meet before her parents went to college.
"As soon as my parents got their degrees, everything changed for us," said Rivera, 27, who's seeking her Ph.D. in education policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "They got better jobs. We moved into a gated community. We had a pool in our backyard."
Rivera's studies come as the number of Hispanics with doctorates jumped 161 percent from 1990 to 2010, almost double the non-Hispanic rate of 90 percent, according to U.S. Census data. People of Latin American or Spanish ancestry have emerged as a powerful voting bloc, courted by President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on job-creation and economic issues.
"The growth that we're seeing in Hispanic doctoral degrees is largely a product of the growth in the Hispanic population generally in the last 20 years, and to a lesser degree reflects some improvements in the economic situation and opportunities," said John Moder, senior vice president and chief operating officer at the San Antonio-based Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
Nationwide, the Hispanic population more than doubled to 50.5 million in 2010 from 22.4 million in 1990, according to Census data. Hispanics comprised 16 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, America's largest and fastest-growing ethnic group because of high immigration and birth rates, according to an August 2011 report by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.
Since 2000, Latinos and Asians have driven the growth among young adults going to college, said Richard Fry, senior research associate specializing in education trends at the Pew center. Hispanics with a college degree increased to 13 percent in 2010 from 10 percent in 2000, according to Pew.
"There's growing evidence that more young Hispanics are eligible for college because more are finishing high school," Fry said.
Hispanics tend to be concentrated in states hit hardest by the housing meltdown, including California, Nevada and Florida.
"For some young adults, they'd rather work than go to college but they can't find work because of the recession," Fry said. "The dropout rates have declined because jobs are not available."
Latino students credit teachers and advisers with steering them toward higher education by helping them find fellowships and scholarships.
"When I went to college, I did not even know that I could have much of a research career," said Felix Perez, 27, who is in his fifth year of doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
As an undergraduate at California State University, Fresno, Perez received help from a professor in getting a fellowship that allowed him to focus on research.
"For Hispanics, that's where they need help the most, is to be exposed to the field," Perez said.
U.S. immigration exploded from 1880 to 1920 as the industrial revolution drew about 20 million foreigners seeking manufacturing jobs and economic advancement. After the 1960s, the bulk of immigrants shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia, with Hispanics comprising the largest group. In 2010, Mexican-Americans made up 63 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to Pew.
Second-generation Hispanic-Americans are more likely than their immigrant parents to have college degrees, higher-paying jobs and be homeowners, according to a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress in Washington.
While white students seeking Ph.D.s at Berkeley outnumber Hispanics almost 7 to 1, their numbers are going in opposite directions. There were 385 Latino students pursuing doctoral degrees in the fall of 2011, a 46 percent increase in 20 years, according to Berkeley data. White doctoral students fell 25 percent to 2,529 in the same period.
"You have a combination of population growth and an increase in the pool of students available to consider getting a Ph.D.," Lisa Garcia Bedolla, chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research at Berkeley, said.
"The actual number is still not tremendously large," Garcia Bedolla said. "Whites are still way overrepresented in higher education, more so than any other group."
At the University of Texas at Austin, Hispanics getting Ph.D.s increased to 53 in the 2009-2010 academic year from 32 in 1989-1990, according to university data.
"It is clear that Hispanic students overall, particularly in doctoral study, are underrepresented," Gregory Vincent, the university's vice president of diversity and community engagement, said. "A Ph.D. is this kind of mysterious degree. You have to make sure that first- generation students are aware of that degree."
Genesis Urbina, 22, of Sarita, Texas, will begin her pursuit of a doctorate in Hispanic studies at Texas A&M University in College Station with the help of a fellowship providing about $100,000 for her first two years.
Urbina, whose mother is from Mexico, said her family had "very limited funds" when she was growing up.
"What is my career going to be in the end?" Urbina said. "I don't know. That's later. At the moment, the support is there."