A record 67 per cent of American high school graduates went on to further or higher education last year, the United States Labor Department has announced.
The figure had stuck at about 62 per cent for most of the decade, but it rose to 65 per cent in 1996 and jumped again in 1997, the department said. Enrolment exceeded the previous peak in the Vietnam War, when college study was a means of evading the military draft.
The results seemed to shore up the US place as the world leader among industrial countries when it comes to securing college places for its citizens. International surveys have shown that close to a quarter of Americans has a college degree. In 1994, the comparable figure for the United Kingdom was about half that, at 12 per cent.
Labor secretary Alexis Herman said the increasing demands of employers for college-educated staff accounted for the trend. "More and more of our young people see a college degree as more than just a piece of paper, but rather as the ticket to success in the 21st century."
Experts said the trend would add to a surge in demand from the so-called "baby boomlet", children of baby boomers working their way through to college.
"That's an incredibly big leap," said Robin Zuniga, a research associate at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, although she warned she would have to look more closely at the Labor Department figures.
The commission earlier this year predicted that the number of high-school graduates will peak at 3.2 million in 2008, a 26 per cent rise over 1996.
"If there's also an increasing number of these students attending post-secondary education, that is going to put an incredible burden on the higher education system," Zuniga said.
The rise in college enrolment has occurred when the job market is generally reckoned to be good - inviting students to move into the workplace rather than continue with their studies.
But recent reports have underlined how a college education boosts lifetime earnings.
The unemployment rate for college graduates is 2 per cent, compared with 11 per cent for those who had no more than a high school education.
Jeanne Ludwig, a policy analyst for the California post-secondary education commission, said: "There seems to be a perception that going to college has become the new ticket to the American dream. It is really clear that given the way our economy is restructuring itself some college is required to get upward mobility."
In 1997, 2.8 million young people graduated from high schools, and nearly 1.9 million enrolled in college, including 1.7 million full-time students.
There was a gender gap: 70 per cent of women were enrolled in college, compared with just 63.5 per cent of the males.
Only 60 per cent of black school-leavers were enrolled, compared with 68 per cent of white students and 66 per cent of Hispanics, the other large minority.
The states experiencing a boom are in the south, southwest and west. They face the biggest pressure to invest in higher education facilities to cope with growing enrolments, experts say.
California's public universities are already filled to capacity, for example, and face extra pressure from the children of new immigrants.
In the fastest-growing city in the country, Las Vegas, Nevada, the school system is already expanding at chaotic speed, and that will soon make itself felt in universities.
Only 39 per cent of Nevada's school graduates go on to college, far below the national average. The number is expected to double in the next ten years.
But the pressures of jobs, family and community activities and cost of tuition have lengthened the time it takes to earn a university degree.
The private American College Testing Program has revealed that the number of those who manage to graduate within five years has fallen to an all-time low.
Only 52.8 per cent of students who entered four-year institutions during 1991 had earned a degree by 1996. However, the proportion of first-year drop-outs fell slightly, it reported.