RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — College enrollment across North Carolina was down for the second year in a row — but the drop here hasn’t been as bad as it has been across the rest of the country.

Nearly 4,500 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs this spring in North Carolina than a year earlier, a drop of 0.9 percent, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That’s four times lower than the national drop of 4.1 percent among both undergraduate and graduate students, the clearinghouse found. 

And North Carolina’s drop was one of the nation’s smallest — especially compared to declines of nearly 16 percent in Michigan and more than 8 percent in California.

A total of 476,338 students enrolled in North Carolina colleges this spring, down from 480,764 in 2021.

Michael Davis, the assistant director of admissions at the University of North Carolina, says enrollment in Chapel Hill has remained steady and the numbers from the clearinghouse back that up, showing a barely perceptible drop across the UNC System — 0.1 percent, a decline of 198 students — at the state’s public, four-year schools.

North Carolina State University is expecting the largest first-year class in school history in the fall.

Conversely, enrollment at the public two-year schools fell by 1.8 percent this year, while it dropped by 1.1 percent at private, four-year schools.

“For whatever reason, college is not seen as either attainable, or as needed,” Davis said.

What’s driving the decline? One easy answer is the COVID-19 pandemic, after enrollments fell in 43 states from Spring 2020 — when there was a total of 496,443 — to Spring 2021. 

It dropped by 3.2 percent in North Carolina that year, meaning that decline was 3.5 times steeper than it was this year.

But Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the clearinghouse, says it “suggests it’s more than just the pandemic, it’s more than just low-income communities that are primarily served by community colleges.

“It suggests that there’s a broader question about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns,” he said.

So what’s happened instead is that a changing job market could be enticing more would-be students to start working immediately after high school.

“And the the kind of explanation behind it is that more people are just going straight into the workforce, because jobs are available,” Davis said.

The trends also extend to the majors those who enroll in four-year schools select. Nationally, there was a 22 percent increase since 2021 in those majoring in communications technologies or technicians and support services, compared to an 18 percent drop in science technologies or technicians.

Shapiro says it reflects questions about whether a college degree is “part of the ticket to the middle class and to better paying jobs.

“And I think there's a lot of a lot of assessment partly triggered about the importance of career planning in that regard, and the relative value of jobs that require or expect college degrees.”

Any discussion about that value has to start with the general trend of rising costs, though for most of the past decade that has not been as big of an issue in North Carolina.

The UNC System in February said it would keep tuition flat for in-state students for a sixth consecutive year but raised the prices for out-of-state students.

But Davis says education leaders can do more when it comes to making financial aid more available to students and connecting them to those resources.

“Part of it is that education and helping students know about those options and connecting them so that they can get that financial aid,” he said.