It is a surprising answer to a question that, until recently, no one had bothered to ask:

Do children from well-to-do families tend to go to private colleges or to public universities?

Answer: Public universities.

On average, students at the "flagship" universities of state college systems have higher family incomes than their counterparts at private colleges, according to a new analysis of federal survey data.

The families of undergraduates attending these universities earned a median annual income of more than $51,000, compared with less than $47,000 at the nation's private colleges in the 1995-96 school year, the latest survey information available.

Just a sampling of state flagships suggests how gentrified the nation's best state universities have become. Median family income is about $56,000 at the University of California, $75,000 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and $80,000 at the University of Texas. For last year's graduating class at the University of Virginia, it was $94,000.

While family incomes of students at the most prestigious private colleges--the Ivy League schools and the like--usually exceed even this level, most of the nation's 1,500 private colleges are smaller schools little known outside their local areas-- such as Trinity College in Northeast Washington, where median income is $35,000.

The nationwide income medians come from a new analysis of federal figures by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Although the Education Department data used are four years old, experts believe the surprising pattern continues. The results also agree with separate studies that four states--Florida, Minnesota, Oregon and California--conducted in the early 1990s.

In two of those states, Florida and Oregon, the pattern was even broader: Family incomes were higher not just at flagship universities, but at public colleges as a whole--including such little-known schools as the University of West Florida and Southern Oregon University.

Higher education analysts cited several possible reasons for the pattern. As the gap between tuition rates at private and public colleges has grown, more affluent families have shopped around for the best value, often relying on guides that rank colleges by quality and encourage parents to use a consumer approach in picking one. Unlike private colleges, state universities essentially subsidize student costs regardless of income by offering low tuition for in-state students. And in recent years, many public universities have made aggressive efforts to court top students--who often come from affluent families--with such offers as merit scholarships.

"What you get is some fairly sophisticated parents who are relatively astute at evaluating what you get for your money," said Larry Burt, student financial aid director at the University of Texas.

The higher income levels at flagship universities undercut several long-held assumptions--for instance, the exclusive elitism of private colleges, the lower quality of public colleges and the conception of state universities as open doors to higher education.

In addition, analysts say the current situation raises hard questions about state policies that defray education costs for residents regardless of income. "A lot of government spending--state appropriations--is going to subsidize the education of people from pretty high-income families. But states are not doing enough with student aid to make those institutions affordable to low-income kids," said Michael McPherson, president of private Macalester College in Minnesota and co-author of the book "The Student Aid Game."

Brian Zucker, a Chicago consultant who conducted the studies in Florida, Minnesota and Oregon, called state-subsidized tuition "one of the great entitlements that exists for middle-income families."

A few states are actually moving to change their scholarship policies. To decrease the financial burden on low-income students, a Missouri panel recently proposed that the state provide more scholarships based on financial need. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) made a similar proposal earlier this month as part of his plan to end affirmative action in the state's college admissions.

Compared with public universities, private colleges offer more scholarship money based on need, discounting their higher tuition rates for low-income students and lowering the midpoint of family income levels on their campuses.

"The national perception has always been that private institutions are the domain of the wealthy," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "The fact is we are every bit as accessible as the publics."

Although states created public colleges partly to make higher education more accessible to low-income students, affluent families have come to find lower tuition rates attractive, particularly at the best state schools, where academic programs can rival the quality of those in the Ivy League.

"For an increasing number of families in that suburban upper echelon, they're saying: 'Let's look at U-Va. and let's look at Maryland,' " said Travil Reindl, a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "That old notion of public institutions being inferior in quality--it's disappearing."

Some state flagships, such as the University of Maryland at College Park, have made a deliberate effort to pursue better students and a reputation for academic quality. But such efforts ultimately change the economic composition of the student body as well. "If a school over time gets more selective, we would expect the place to be gentrified," Zucker said. (Maryland does not collect overall figures on median family income, but for the 60 percent of last year's freshmen who applied for financial aid, it was $67,000.)

It is unclear how long public universities have had higher-income student bodies than private colleges, because comprehensive figures are scarce. The nationwide pattern was the same in 1992, the only other year for which comparable data are available. And in periodic surveys dating back to 1985, the California Student Aid Commission has consistently found median income to be higher in the University of California system, which includes the prestigious campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles, than at the state's private colleges--among them, high-powered Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology.

Beyond that time, no one knows how long the situation has prevailed in California or the rest of the nation.

"Nobody ever looked at it before, so nobody knows what it was historically," said Gary Andeen, executive director of the Oregon Independent Colleges Association.

Incomes and Education

Family incomes of students at flagship state universities are higher than those at private colleges and universities, state and national studies conducted in the 1990s suggest.

Median family income of college students

1992 1995

Public flagship universities $49,658 $51,231

Private colleges $47,735 $46,863

California (1997)

Private: $54,390

Public: $55,557

(University of California)

Florida (1993)

Private: $45,850

Public: $50,750

(Public institutions)

Oregon (1992)

Private: $45,734

Public: $47,210

(State colleges and universities)

Minnesota (1991)

Private: $45,500

Public: $48,250

(University of Minnesota)

SOURCES: National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, California Student Aid Commission, Florida Postsecondary Education Planning Commission, Oregon Independent Colleges Association, Minnesota Private College Council