Apparently increasing numbers of America’s middle class students are choosing community colleges over four-year schools in an effort of save some money, and eventually transfer to the (more expensive) colleges they really want to attend. How this is working out is a little unclear.

According to a piece by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post:

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.

It’s worth pointing out that middle class students have always attended community colleges. About 12 percent of students from households earning $100,000 or more attended community colleges in 2009-2010. But it’s a pretty big jump to 22 percent.

“The middle-class families in our suburbs are beginning to realize the value of NOVA” [Northern Virginia Community College],” said George Gabriel, vice president of NOVA’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment to de Vise.

This is true but it’s not an entirely positive development. Community colleges don’t have infinite capacity. The more middle class students attend such colleges, the fewer poor ones can do so. This is often the best route many working Americans have into higher education; pushing them out because of increased demand from the relatively affluent could have a pretty negative effect on social mobility, such as it is.

The 2011 Sallie Mae survey also found that upper-income families spent 18 percent less on college than the year before. This is the first time the annual survey has found a decline in the measure.

Check out the Sallie Mae report here.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer