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There were nearly half a million fewer people enrolled in higher education in 2012, and that's a good sign.

Across the country, higher education enrollment is plummeting. There were nearly half a million fewer students enrolled in college and graduate school in fall 2012 than there were a year earlier, according to a new Census release. That decline is all the more startling when you consider this: between 2006 and 2011, graduate and undergraduate enrollment grew by 3.2 million. The biggest decline, by far, came from students over 25. Their enrollment fell by 419,000; younger students dropped by 48,000.

The reason? The recovering economy, according to Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

Higher education enrollment has risen over the last 20 years, Hartle says, but the trend is counter-cyclical. During bad economies, people rush to finish a degree or pick up new skills. That's why 2007 and 2008 saw a 13 percent increase in enrollment, the biggest jump in 25 years.

The half-a-million person drop sounds big, he says, but it's really just a return to normalcy. "Enrollment tends to level off or fall when the economy is improving," he says. "Given how much enrollment surged during the economic downturn, a reduction was inevitable."

And this could be good news for colleges too, Hartle explains. "Many of the areas where we've seen the sharpest increase in demand are places like California, where community colleges couldn't enroll everyone," he says. "I don't think the cyclical fluctuations are a major problem."

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