Julie Hong grew up in the sort of leafy Montgomery County suburb where college is assumed. Her parents had saved for the expense since she was a baby. When the time came, they said she could go wherever she wished. She chose a community college.
Comparatively affluent students are picking community colleges over four-year schools in growing numbers, a sign of changing attitudes toward an institution long identified with poorer people.
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.
Hong, a Gaithersburg resident raised in a double-income home, graduated this year from Montgomery public schools.
She got acceptances from several four-year colleges, including Loyola University Maryland, Catholic University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Her parents were willing to pay for any of them. But Hong found herself balking at the expense.
“I didn’t want my parents to spend that money, especially if they didn’t have to,” she said.
Montgomery College beckoned with a merit scholarship, which left her responsible only for textbooks. She is living at home, working at a law firm and saving money toward an eventual transfer.
College officials say the Great Recession changed how upper-income families think about paying for college. It left them averse to debt and wary of paying full price. Families are shopping for value and pressing for discounts.
The Sallie Mae survey may have captured a turning point. Its 2011 edition found that upper-income families spent 18 percent less on college in 2010-11 than in the previous academic year, the first such decline the survey has recorded.
Other surveys have noted a shift in attitudes toward college.
A College Board report last week found that the average amount students actually spend on private four-year colleges, after subtracting grant aid, has been essentially flat over the past five years. A Pew Research Center report this year found that a majority of Americans fault higher education for failing to provide value.
Students increasingly shop for the best college deal.
Admission officers respond by offering merit aid to talented students, occasionally sparking bidding wars.
Some students reap still larger discounts by forgoing four-year residential colleges altogether.
“You could pay for a whole year at NOVA for the amount you pay for room and board somewhere else,” said John Michie, 20, a second-year student at Northern Virginia Community College.
After struggling at four-year Radford University, Michie enrolled at the community college rather than another four-year school.
He was not without financial options; Michie’s father is an IT professional and his mother a substitute teacher. But Michie didn’t want them to spend the money.
“My parents told me, even before the housing bubble, the last thing you want to do is start your life out in debt.”
Community colleges can’t quite match the wall-to-wall experience of residential college. But they cater to collegiate sensibilities, with intramural sports, coffeehouses, activity boards and pillow-strewn lounges.
Outside the student activity office at the main campus of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale on a recent afternoon, students huddled around low-slung tables playing “Magic: The Gathering.” In a courtyard nearby, three students tossed a football.
Ethan Bovender, 19, sat at an outdoor table with his laptop. A music major from a financially comfortable Fairfax County household, Bovender plans to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University. For now, he walks to school.
“It’s close and convenient,” Bovender said. He gestured over his shoulder: “My house is right across the way.”