Sam Cameron says high school classmates used to give her "funny looks" when she told them she planned to go to a local community college after graduation instead of some prestigious four-year institution.

But the 19-year-old, now in her second year at Montgomery College, says she chose the Rockville school because it offered a strong honors program with small classes — and a full scholarship.

"It's a very good school," says Cameron, who lives at home with her parents in Ashton. "I'm paying less for a better education than what some other people are getting."

More families are coming to the same conclusion as Cameron. The weak economy, depressed home values and high job insecurity are making parents and students more cost-conscious when it comes to college.

A new survey by student loan giant Sallie Mae found that families spent 9 percent less in the 2010-2011 academic year, thanks partly to a shift to less expensive schools.

More families also applied for financial aid — and got it.

This growing attention to cost is a healthy trend — and one that can prevent parents nearing retirement and students just getting started on a career path from taking on more debt than necessary.

And with a College Board calculator projecting that four years at a private college will cost nearly $420,00 in 18 years, it's about time families started saying, 'Enough.'

It's not that families never noticed the cost of college. They did — but in a different way.

Cost used to be a selling point, according to Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke." Parents assumed the higher the price tag, the better the school.

Colleges didn't want to have tuition significantly lower than their peers, Chany says, for fear they would seem not as good.

But the weak economy has changed attitudes.

Many parents who thought nothing of tapping the rising equity in their home to pay a $40,000 tuition bill don't have that option now, Chany says.

"People are much more hesitant now to borrow."

Parents also expect a return on their investment, Chany says. They are less willing to pay top dollar, he says, when they see that graduates of expensive schools aren't getting superior jobs or into better graduate programs than those who attended cheaper institutions.

"People say, 'Why is it necessary for me to spend $250,000 when I can spend $60,000 or $40,000?'" Chany says.

And public institutions and community colleges are gaining greater acceptance, he says, as more parents see friends sending their children to these less expensive schools.

These sentiments, particularly among middle- to high-income families, are reflected in Sallie Mae's survey of about 1,600 households that are sending kids to college, which was released last week.

Sallie Mae found that middle- to high-income families saw their college costs drop in the 2010-2011 academic year.