The growing debate over college costs in the US is pushing more students to community colleges, with schools that offer vocational programs seeing a big bump in enrollment.

After steep declines in the pandemic, enrollment at community colleges rose 2.6% in 2023 compared with a year earlier, fueled by a 16% surge at two-year schools with a “high vocational program focus,” according to the data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment rose 1.2% — an increase of about 176,000 students. And while that was the first gain since the pandemic, there are still more than a million “empty seats on campuses today that were filled five years ago,” Doug Shapiro, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.

As college costs rise and millions struggle to pay their student loans, more people are questioning  whether four-year degrees are worth it, especially in fields of study that don’t lead to high-paying jobs. And while undergraduate enrollment has not recovered after dropping in the pandemic, community colleges with a vocational focus have seen enrollment rise 3.7% above 2019 levels.

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.