Strained by rising college costs, more students from middle-class and even affluent families are choosing cheaper schools, living at home and relying on grants and scholarships.

Those are the core findings of an annual study, "How America Pays for College," released Tuesday by Sallie Mae-Ipsos.

Last year's study found families grappling with the recession by reaching deeper into savings to pay a record-high slice of the growing cost of college. This time, the average family surveyed paid a little less for the 2010-11 school year than the year before, thanks to different choices and more grants.

"While families were able to stretch in the shortest of terms ... that can only go so far," Ipsos pollster Clifford Young said. "There's some downsizing going on."

But they're still sending their children to college. Nine out of 10 students strongly agreed that it's "an investment in the future." Meanwhile, parents' anxieties about the economy, which peaked last year, dropped a bit. Rising tuition remains their No. 1 concern.

Families reported paying an average of $21,889 on college-related expenses -- including tuition, textbooks and rent -- in 2011. That's less than last year but more than in 2009 and 2008.

The price tag for wealthier students dropped. Families making $100,000 or more paid 18 percent less than last year, while middle-income families paid about 6 percent less. But families making less than $35,000 paid 14 percent more to meet this year's college costs -- from $17,404 in 2010 to $19,888 in 2011.

The logical route

Nearly all the 1,600 students and parents surveyed in the study reported making new or different moves to save money, such as going to school part time, picking a lower-priced college or living at home.

Tyler Zabel, 18, had been considering film schools in Florida and Chicago with tuition ranging from $25,000 to $42,000 a year. But he settled on Minneapolis Community and Technical College, in part because the price tag is closer to $7,000 a year.

"MCTC has a similar program, but it's a lot cheaper and closer to home," Zabel said. He also likes that MCTC's program is hands-on, rather than theoretical. Zabel will live with his middle-class parents in Shakopee and take the park-and-ride to downtown Minneapolis. Classes start Tuesday. Film isn't a career that requires a college education, he noted, but "having a degree is kind of necessary these days."

This year's survey, focused on students ages 18 to 24, indicates that most students and parents agree on the "practical value of a college education to families." More students and parents strongly agreed that college is "an investment in the future" and more cited "earn more money" as a reason to attend.

But after record highs last year, fewer parents were willing to stretch themselves financially for their students. The percentage who "strongly agreed" that they would "rather borrow than not go" dropped from 59 percent last year to 51 percent this year. Students' willingness to borrow, at 61 percent, was unchanged from last year.

'Still bleak'

Parents seem a little less worried than last year, survey answers show. "We've seen the worry come down," said Sarah Ducich, Sallie Mae's senior vice president for public policy. "They've taken these steps and they've gotten a handle on their financing."

That seems strange to Ronald Ramsdell, founder of College Aid Consulting Services in Minneapolis, who helps his clients navigate the financial aid process. "It's still bleak," he said. "It's awful. The cost of education is still rising, Parents are still struggling. It has not gotten better for families."

But he agrees that "families are now lowering their anxiety levels," in part because they "realize that a community college is a good choice in the first and second years."

About one-third of poor students attend public two-year colleges, a greater share than other income levels. But suddenly, a bigger chunk of high-income families are attending these low-cost institutions -- 22 percent in 2010-11 compared to 12 percent in 2009-10.

"This might help explain how middle- and higher-income families were able to reduce their contributions from income and savings," the study says, "and decrease the overall amount they paid for college."

More of those students also received grants. For the first time in the study's history, more families said that they filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- 80 percent, compared to 72 percent who said so last year. Most of that increase came from middle- and high-income categories.

More poor students

For several years, the low-income category has been swelling in size -- from 20 percent of the survey sample in 2008 to 32 percent in 2011. Young called that a "surprising" trend unexplained by their survey.

It might be that more students from low-income families are going to college. Or that more families, hit hard by the recession, now fit in that category. Or that increased funding for the Pell Grant program has brought in more students who qualify.

The percentage of students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system who received federal, need-based Pell grants has grown from 45 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2010.

Brittney Hagstrom, who considers her family middle-class, is attending Normandale Community College as a high school student, through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program. She expects that even once she has graduated from high school, she'll continue attending the public Bloomington college.

"Instead of trying to go to an all-out, big college, I'll probably transfer to another school to finish the four-year degree," she said. "It's cheaper."

Hagstrom said that although her family supports her going to college, they live "paycheck to paycheck," so she's "stuck paying for myself."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168