Frugal is the new black: An increasing number of middle- and even upper-middle-class students are starting at community colleges , reports the Washington Post.
Some 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, according to Sallie Mae, which specializes in student loans.
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.”
Many community colleges use honors programs to compete for top students like Julie Hong, who grew up in a middle-class Maryland suburb. She was admitted to Loyola University Maryland, Catholic University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her parents were willing to pay the cost, but she didn’t want them to borrow unnecessarily. Instead, she lives at home, works part-time at a law firm and goes to Montgomery College on a merit scholarship. Since she pays only for textbooks, she’s able to save money to pay college costs once she transfers.
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.
Parents are demanding discounts on sky-high private college tuition, reports College Board. But community college is the cheapest option by far.
“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.”
I’m not sure if second- and third-tier private colleges will be able to survive in this economy. The high costs don’t guarantee high-quality instruction or a degree with high market value.