The national Hispanic Scholarship Fund announced yesterday that it has received a $50 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., one of the nation's largest private foundations, to promote college education among the nation's fastest-growing population segment.

The grant, which will provide funding for both aspiring and current Hispanic college students in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, is the largest amount ever pledged to a Hispanic organization for education in the United States.

"In the next century, Hispanics will continue to grow in number, influence and responsibility, and this grant recognizes the importance of education in building a foundation to make America stronger," Sara Martinez Tucker, fund president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The fund is the nation's oldest provider of college scholarships to Hispanic Americans and has awarded more than 36,000 scholarships totaling about $38 million since it was founded in 1975. Three years ago it began a campaign to double--from 9 percent to 18 percent--the percentage of Hispanics earning college degrees by 2006. Ninety-seven percent of students who receive fund scholarships earn college degrees.

The grant will enable the fund to significantly increase the number of Hispanics starting college, Martinez Tucker said. The money will be used for various programs, including:

* A college retention fund, which will provide 2,000 academic scholarships per year over a five-year period to current four-year college students;

* A separate scholarship fund earmarked for graduating high school seniors, which will require individual school districts to raise matching funds in their communities;

* A community college program, which will encourage individuals to continue their education by transferring to a four-year institution.

The Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment is a private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three Lilly family members through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Co.

Endowment President N. Clay Robbins said the foundation decided to help the Hispanic Scholarship Fund because it was "impressed by research showing that low educational attainment is a key barrier to the prosperity of Hispanic Americans."

Hispanics now account for 11 percent, or some 32 million, of the U.S. population, and it is estimated by demographers that 40 percent of the nation's new population in the next two years will be Hispanic.

Martinez Tucker, the first Hispanic female to enter AT&T Corp.'s executive management, joined the scholarship fund in 1997, determined to raise its national profile. She was largely responsible for securing the Lilly grant and is trying to reach out to other foundations and businesses.

"We will continue to seek additional support from other responsible corporations, foundations and private citizens to sustain the vision and mission that Lilly Endowment has made possible," she said.