After five years of gains, undergraduate college enrollment fell nearly 3 percent in fall 2012, according to a new U.S. Census report that sheds fresh light on the recruiting challenge facing many colleges and universities.

Census data released Tuesday showed that an estimated 16.17 million undergraduates were enrolled last October, down from 16.63 million the previous year. The decline of more than 450,000 students was the largest since 1999.

There was a surge of enrollment following the 2008 financial crisis, as many adults young and old fled a dismal job market. Now, as the economy is stabilizing, enrollment in many institutions is down sharply.

The census data also showed that Hispanic college enrollment was up sharply, in contrast to declines in non-Hispanic white and black enrollment.