More Americans enrolled in college this fall compared to a year ago, but the types of programs they’re pursuing are changing.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit degree verification organization, U.S. undergraduate enrollments rose by 176,000 for the fall 2023 semester. Total college enrollments, including undergraduate and graduate programs, were up 193,000.

“The number of students in college has finally turned the corner after years of decline,” said Doug Shapiro, an executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse. “The small uptick this fall is a welcome change for higher education.”

Despite the optimistic growth, there are a few caveats to the data.

For starters, there are still more than 1 million fewer college students than before the pandemic, so schools havent fully recovered from the enrollment drain.

Secondly, more students are passing on lengthier Bachelor’s degrees in favor of shorter associate and certificate degrees.

“Students have been increasingly opting for shorter-term degrees and more vocational programs and vocational certificates,” Shapiro said.

Unlike four-year Bachelor’s degrees, associate programs are usually two years in length and teach specific technical skills. Vocational programs also focus on occupation-specific training and are much shorter than traditional four-year degrees.

More students are turning away from Bachelor’s degrees because they’re expensive and don’t always lead to better career outcomes.

The cost (and outcomes) of education

It’s never been more expensive to pursue a college education in America. Especially four-year Bachelor’s degrees.

Over the past 20 years, Bachelor's tuition and fees at private national universities have increased by 132% to $46,652 per year, according to data from U.S. News & World Report.

Out-of-state tuition and fees have jumped by 127% to $28,217 per year, while in-state costs rose by 158% to $11,970 per year.

Most college-goers can’t afford these prices, so they take on debt to finance their education.

According to Creditnews Research’s real-time student debt tracker, Americans owe more than $1.73 trillion in student loans. That’s a more than three-fold increase over the past two decades.

While college grads—and Bachelor’s degree holders, in particular—enjoy higher lifetime earnings than non-graduates, it’s not as clear-cut as it used to be.

According to Georgetown University, there’s considerable overlap in lifetime earnings between a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

People with only a high school education earn between $1.1 million and $2.2 million over their lifetime, compared to $1.4 million and $2.9 million for associate’s degree holders.

There’s also considerable overlap between associate’s degree holders and people with a Bachelor’s degree. The latter earn between $1.9 million and $4.1 million over their lifetime.

“More education doesn’t always get you more money,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, lead report writer at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “There’s a lot of variation in earnings related to field of study, occupation, and other factors.”

A growing body of research suggests these factors are keeping graduates up at night.

College regret is a real thing

A 2022 survey by ZipRecruiter found that a whopping 44% of degree holders regret their college majors and would choose different programs if they had the chance. This figure was 87% for journalism grads and 72% for graduates of sociology and liberal arts programs.

The data was based on current job seekers, not people holding down jobs. It could be that grads in these and related fields struggle with higher unemployment, so they have less appreciation for their education.

Pre-pandemic data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that liberal arts and humanities majors between the ages of 25 and 29 had an unemployment rate that was nearly two points higher than the average for degree holders in the same age group.

As it turns out, it’s not just young liberal arts grads who are struggling with higher unemployment. Recent grads across all degree programs have been especially vulnerable since the pandemic.

“Recent college graduates are very sensitive to the state of the labor market,” Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post. “There’s been some softening in hiring, and young people in general are the first to feel it.”