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During the pandemic many Americans chose not to go to college, but high schoolers did

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

During the pandemic, lots of Americans chose not to go to college, but one group did - high schoolers. NPR's Elissa Nadworny takes us to Birmingham, Ala., for this report.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It's bright and early at Woodlawn High School. Most students are sleepwalking from their cars into the regal brick and glass building. But a handful of students are getting on an idling school bus parked out front.

NOVEMBER BOHLER: You want to stop and talk and, like, communicate, but you got to catch the bus before it leaves.

NADWORNY: November Bohler is among the dozen or so Woodlawn High students heading to their first class of the day on a different campus, a college campus 20 minutes away.

NOVEMBER: It's, like, finals day for us. It might be a little panic.

NADWORNY: November settles in behind a group of students. They're all trying to cram a semester's worth of history on index cards.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: My handwriting is small. So it'll be - I'll be fine.

NADWORNY: They're each allowed to have one during their final exam.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: You're not going to be able to read all this.

NADWORNY: Several days a week, these students spend their mornings on a college campus and their afternoons back at high school in what's often called a dual enrollment program. This bus is headed to Jefferson State Community College.

EMMA MITCHELL: Going here makes taking the high school classes way easier.

NADWORNY: Emma Mitchell is a junior who's sitting at the back of the bus, reading over her notes for her morning sociology test. Off the bus, students find their classes on campus.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: And today is the final exam day. So no headphones or earbuds, with the exception of our NPR journalist.

NADWORNY: Here at Jefferson State, high school students make up a third of the student body. And there's not just a benefit to students getting to experience college early. High schoolers on campus mean a huge benefit for the college.

PAM KELLEY: So we get full tuition dollars for all of our dual enrollment students.

NADWORNY: Pam Kelley is a dual enrollment coordinator at Jeff State.

KELLEY: That's a lot of revenue that we're not missing out on.

NADWORNY: During the pandemic, Jefferson State, like most community colleges, saw far fewer people enrolling overall, but their number of high school students kept growing. Nationally, data shows the pandemic's steep enrollment declines at two-year colleges are flattening, almost entirely because of high school students. Pam Kelley attributes this growth to two things, the rise of online learning during COVID - if your class is online anyways, why not try a college one? - and funding. In the last two years, the state of Alabama has invested millions in dual enrollment. So for many students, it's free. And it's not just Alabama. There are strong dual enrollment numbers in places like Texas and Ohio. In Iowa, high school students make up 45% of community college enrollment. Pam Kelley at Jeff State says the growth has been a cushion for the college, but it's not just about money.

KELLEY: Numbers are important. There is no doubt about it. But to me, it's about giving students an opportunity to change their lives.

NADWORNY: After all the morning finals are over at Jeff State, I catch up with November Bohler. She doesn't think she'll come here full time after her high school graduation. She's interested in neurosurgery.

NOVEMBER: I want to do biology, like biology and chemistry, the lab.

NADWORNY: The general ed classes she's taken here as a high school student have given her a big confidence boost.

NOVEMBER: I feel like I can handle it.

NADWORNY: Plus, November tells me, if she does go on to be a doctor, that's a lot more schooling. Getting a year or two of college credits before she graduates high school, that's going to help the community college stay afloat, but it's also going to save her time and money.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.