Where More Upper-Middle Class Students are Heading

At this time of year, lots of families are realizing that their high school seniors can’t attend their dream schools.

Seniors are receiving their financial aid packages in the mail and for some of them the numbers don’t look good.  Among those who are struggling are upper middle-class families that you might assume would be in better shape to pay for college.

Well-off families who haven’t saved for college can get hammered because they will be expected to pick up a substantial amount of the tab. An affluent student might get a $15,000-a-year scholarship, but if the school costs $50,000 that’s a huge leap for a family of any income with meager savings.

Where the Upper-Middle Class Students Are Heading

That’s why I’m not surprised by a new study by Sallie Mae that indicates that a growing number of students from the upper-middle-class are enrolling in community colleges. The increased popularity of community colleges among the more affluent is stunning.

Nationwide, 22% of college students from families with incomes above $100,000 enrolled in community colleges for the 2010-2011 school year. In comparison, just 12% of students in this demographic attended community colleges a year earlier.

Most of these students in this demographic would have normally trotted off to public four-year institutions because sure enough, there was a significant drop among this group who headed to these institutions (56% attended four-year public schools in 2009 versus 48% the next year). The percentage of students  attending private colleges and universities during those two years didn’t change as much 30% to 27%.

Community Colleges Are Looking More Appealing

I’ve been encountering more affluent parents out here in California, who are curious about sending their children to community colleges.  Many of these parents haven’t saved enough money for four-year institutions, but they also wonder why they should sacrifice financially when their children could take the same general-ed classes they’d get at a public university with fewer students and for less money.

California , by the way, is ground zero for community colleges, which is where most students end up here. One out of every seven college students in the entire country attend a community college in California!

Middle-Class Preference for Community Colleges

While not as pronounced, the survey revealed that middle-income families also are showing a greater preference for community colleges. During the same time period, the percentage of middle income students attending community colleges jumped from 44% to 53%.

The New Community College

The knock against community colleges is that they’ve always the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. Most students who enroll get lost in the system and never emerge with a degree.

That’s far less of an issue with affluent students, who are better prepared academically and who have parents who can easily handle the cost. These students are also more likely to seek out counselors, which is very important since students need to make sure that their credits eventually transfer. Consequently, these students are far more likely to obtain their associate degrees and move to a four-year college for their bachelor’s degrees.

A story in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed noted that affluent students descending on community colleges are demanding a full college experience like great fitness centers and extracurricular experiences. Here are stories on the phenomenon:

Younger Wealthier Students Pick Community Colleges, Bringing Expectations

Just Like a Real College Student

A New Jersey Magnet for Affluent Students

One of the schools experiencing a rush of affluent students is Raritan Valley Community College in northern suburban New Jersey. Over the past five years, enrollment has shot up 32%, but the percentage of traditional age students has jumped 49%. Many of these students are coming from two counties (Somerset and Hunterdon), which are among the top 10 most affluent counties in the U.S.

Excellent Community Colleges

For motivated students, exemplary community colleges are scattered across the country and some of the finest have been celebrated by Washington Monthly when it’s released its own honor roll.

“Students at the top community colleges,” the magazine once observed, “are more likely than their research university peers to get prompt feedback from instructors, work with other students on projects in class, make class presentations, and contribute to class discussions…At the best community colleges, teaching comes first.”

For lots of students, community colleges are definitely worth taking a look at!

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3 Responses to Where More Upper-Middle Class Students are Heading

  1. DZ313 May 3, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    I’m just guessing that Dan is a baby boomer. This generation had high paying jobs (many not even requiring college), cheap housing prices, and a strong currency. You could literally work a part time summer job and put yourself through college and still afford a decent place. Nowadays younger people have to work 2 or even 3 jobs for the same thing, and the prospects of finding permanent employment afterward are slim. And the baby boomer answer is a scornful wah wah at their kids.
    Just remember that when they’re too old to take care of themselves.

  2. tom November 11, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    Hi People:

    Being upper middle class by definition means having substantial assets

  3. Prasid February 28, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Pretty interesting stuff. I wonder if these student who show up to community colleges with higher expectations are being disappointed. I also wonder if – as a result of this surge in community college enrollment – we will see a crunch in two years as the UC system and other big public four-year-universities struggle to accommodate a huge wave of students looking to transfe-in. My understanding is that the UC system has a qouta of seats they reserve for transfers and are required to grow their capacity e

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