A recent national survey by Sallie Mae, the student loan giant, has found that 22 percent of students from households earning $100,000 or more attended community colleges in the 2010-11 academic year, up from 12 percent in the previous year. It was the highest rate reported in four years of surveys.
In the lengthening economic downturn, even relatively prosperous families have grown reluctant to borrow for college. Schools are finding that fewer students are willing to pay the full published price of attendance, which tops $55,000 at several private universities. More students are living at home.
Community college leaders in the Washington region don’t ask students about family income, but they are seeing evidence of the trend. At Montgomery College in Maryland, financial aid officers have witnessed a steady increase in aid applicants from families earning $60,000 or more.
At Northern Virginia Community College, admission officers report an uptick in students from relatively prosperous families.
“The middle-class families in our suburbs are beginning to realize the value of NOVA,” said George Gabriel, vice president of the school’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment.
For the price-conscious, community college epitomizes value. Public two-year colleges generally charge less than $5,000 a year — one-tenth the sticker price of elite private institutions. They offer most of the same general-education courses as four-year colleges, often with smaller classes taught by professors rather than graduate-student teaching assistants.
“I actually think that two years at a community college is better than the freshman and sophomore year at a four-year institution,” said John Rossi, a Springfield parent who sent his eldest daughter, Elise, to Northern Virginia Community College this fall.
Rossi is a retired college professor with sufficient means to pay for a four-year college. For 18-year-old Elise, the Rossis chose community college over Roanoke College, a private four-year liberal arts school that charges $44,000 in tuition, fees and living expenses. They also considered George Mason University, a public campus where Elise could have saved money by living at home. But even there, annual tuition is more than $8,000.
“My wife and I have four daughters,” Rossi said. “We have to think about what is the most strategic use of our resources.”
Community colleges, many with two-year honors programs, are competing with four-year schools for the accomplished high school graduate. Their top students can transfer to prestigious universities and finish their education at reduced expense.