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The U.S. college enrollment drop of the past several years is finally slowing

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The drop in U.S. college enrollment over the last several years is starting to slow down. That's according to new numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: After years of steep decline, undergraduate enrollment in the fall of 2022 dipped by less than one percentage point overall. And in some places, it stayed stable. There was even some good news in the new numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment of first-year students increased across the board.

DOUG SHAPIRO: It's very encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery here, even though there's still a long way to go before freshman classes return to their 2019 levels.

CARRILLO: That's Doug Shapiro, the executive director behind the new report. His team used enrollment data for more than 3,000 higher-ed institutions to track patterns of about 18 million students. One bright spot they found? Community colleges, which were the hardest hit during the first two years of the pandemic, actually saw a tiny bump this semester. That's buoyed in part by high schoolers who are taking college classes at the same time or are dual enrolled. Pam Kelley is a dual enrollment counselor at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, Ala.

PAM KELLEY: During COVID, when people were off campus, they kind of got used to the online class. So that became an option where, before, the K12 was kind of hesitant to kind of navigate those online waters. But now, they're just like, hey, we did this. We know how to do this.

CARRILLO: On the other hand, graduate programs, which saw an increase in enrollment during the pandemic, fell in fall 2022. Researchers told NPR in October it's because there's more certainty in the job market, so folks with an undergrad degree are now opting for jobs instead.

Overall, today's numbers offer a welcome bright spot. But with so much uncertainty in the economy and over student debt, experts say there's no guarantee that colleges have turned the corner.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.