For 19-year-old Concord resident Miranda Cashman, the thought of asking her parents to pay $50,000 a year for a private college education didn’t make sense when she had options in the state’s public higher education system.
Cashman spent two years attending classes at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, including one year while she was still in high school, earning her associate’s degree. She will now transfer to the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the fall, majoring in geology.
“I’m a practical person — I’m a scientist — so, yes, the money factors in for me,’’ Cashman said. “It’s silly to pay $50,000 or $60,000 a year for a university that isn’t necessarily better. I’m not at all disappointed about UMass Amherst. I’m really excited about it.’’
Cashman is among a growing percentage of Massachusetts high school graduates choosing public higher education over private. And she is also among those getting the most out of the public system by attending community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year program.
According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the number of high school graduates heading to private four-year colleges fell over the past five years from 30.3 percent to 28.6 percent.
Meanwhile, students heading to public four-year colleges rose from 27 percent to 29.3 percent, and to public two-year colleges from 20.7 percent to 22 percent.
In some districts such as Newton, Malden, and Braintree, the gap was even greater.
“One of the biggest factors is affordability,’’ said Manjula Karamcheti, director of guidance, testing, and academic support at Malden High School.
“We are absolutely a college-going culture, but we want students to make choices that will have a positive impact on their future for education and beyond without leaving them in thousands of dollars of debt,’’ Karamcheti said. “We promote the university system and community college system as affordable routes.’’
Five years ago, 19.5 percent of Malden High School graduates planned to attend a public four-year school, compared with 23.7 percent last year.
Karamcheti said students are not just choosing public four-year schools; they are also looking at community college with the goal of shifting to a state university through the MassTransfer program.
Through the program, community college students who complete their associate degrees and enroll in linked MassTransfer programs can transfer with all of their credits, have guaranteed admission, and receive a tuition discount if they have a qualifying grade point average.
“It’s a great pathway for financial reasons, and with the MassTransfer program, they are continuing to work to improve it so credits can transfer pretty seamlessly ,’’ Karamcheti said.
She said Malden, which already has a strong relationship with Bunker Hill Community College that allows high school students to take college classes through a dual-enrollment program, will offer even more options next year.
Karamcheti said Bunker Hill will be starting an early college program within Malden High School in the fall. By the time students graduate from high school, Karamcheti said, they will be well on their way toward an associate’s degree.
“We have a lot of students who could do the advanced work, so why make them wait,’’ she said. “One of the benefits is the fiscal piece. We’re providing our students an opportunity while they are still with us to earn college credits and remove a lot of the barriers.’’
At Massasoit Community College in Brockton, there has been a huge increase in the number of students looking to transfer to four-year schools, said Evan Desatnick, coordinator of transfer affairs and articulation at Massasoit.
Enrollment in transfer programs offered at Massasoit has doubled, from 1,734 in the fall of 2009 to 3,987 students last fall.
Desatnick said his position was created about a year ago to help coordinate the growing trend and to provide faculty and students the assistance they need to work through the system.
By working with students early on, they will have a better idea of what classes will be transferable, Desatnick said.
“Transfer had always been something we had done well, but it had been piecemeal,’’ he said. “My job is to have a centralized approach to it.’’
In addition to participating in the MassTransfer program, Desatnick said, Massasoit is working with several private universities on transfer agreements.
Within the past year, Massasoit has signed agreements with Stonehill College, Curry College, New England College of Business, and Newbury College.
Desatnick said transferring has become an increasingly popular option for students because more jobs are requiring higher degrees. And it’s an option that Massasoit is frequently promoting to students.
“We’re trying to start from the beginning to say these are some of the options,’’ Desatnick said. “It’s a matter of marketing this to them.’’
Cashman said going to a community college for two years allowed her to slowly transition so she’ll be ready to move away in the fall.
“It gave me a chance to try out college without feeling overwhelmed, dealing with feeding myself and roommate problems,’’ she said. “I got to take it in stages and it worked perfect for me.’’
And while many families initially choose the state system for affordability, many have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the education, officials and parents say.
Cashman’s mother, Christina, said she was blown away by the professionalism, diversity, and expertise at Middlesex.
She home-schooled her daughter in high school and heard about the community college option through other parents.
“It turned out to be the best choice we could have made,’’ Christina Cashman said. “Not only does it save money, it gives the students a chance to learn how to do college at their own pace.’’
Richard Freeland, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, said as more students spread the word about their positive experiences at the state’s public campuses, he expects to see even more families opting for a community college or state university.
“There is a general presumption that private is better than public, and the bias derives from the fact that there are world-class institutions in Massachusetts that overshadow everybody else,’’ said Freeland, “but there are public institutions that are very competitive with their private-sector counterparts. And as that becomes more widely known, you’ll see people making that choice.’’