A few months ago, Rebecca Gottlieb faced a difficult choice: continue on at her $50,000-a-year private school in Massachusetts, or leave her new friends and life and enroll at a cheaper school near home in Washington.
Gottlieb, 19, decided to transfer, dumping Tufts University for Western Washington University and joining the growing numbers of college students realizing that attending their dream school was no longer financially sustainable.
"My parents set up a college fund for me when I was little," the 19-year-old from Bainbridge Island said. "One year there almost drained it."
For many transfers, the financial burden dawned on them after several years. The poor economy and high tuition has already filtered down to high school seniors. A recent survey showed that many don't want to make the same mistake as their old counterparts — they're forgoing costly schools now.
When she starts classes in the fall at Western's campus overlooking Bellingham Bay, Gottlieb will be paying about $15,000 a year and be in the company of plenty of other transfers.
Public university transfers on the rise
The public college had an unusually large number of transfer applications this year, said admissions director Karen Copetas. The school saw a 28.5 percent increase in the number of students who wanted to move from another four-year school.
Copetas said the students gave many reasons for their decision, but money came up repeatedly. She said they are being cost-conscious consumers and wondering if it's necessary to spend so much money on an undergraduate education when expensive graduate school may be in the future.
Admissions directors at public universities around the country are reporting bumps in transfer applications, said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Indiana University has seen a 23 percent increase in transfer applications for next fall; the University of North Carolina had a 15.3 percent increase; and the University of California system saw an 11 percent increase in transfers of in-state students.
Giving 'safety' schools a chance
Graduating high schoolers are determined to avoid having to transfer due to money. A National Association for College Admission Counseling survey released this month showed 71 percent of high schools reported that more of their students are forgoing their "dream schools" than in previous years.
Gottlieb's parents told her they'd find a way to pay for her top choice — even after nearly draining her college fund — if she decided to stay. Thinking of majoring in environmental science, she knew Western had a good program and decided to give her safety school another chance.
"It was completely my choice. They said whatever I did, we'd find a way to make it work," said Gottlieb, whose father is a municipal bond lawyer.
Unjy Park of Tacoma had a scholarship and a federal grant, but was still struggling to pay a $10,000 bill at Philadelphia University this past year.
Her South Korean immigrant parents tried to help, but their drywall business had gone from extremely busy to almost nonexistent in the past two years. With plans for medical school, Park was also concerned about collecting too many student loans.
"I kept getting more and more worried about it," she said.
So Park, 19, the first person in her family to go to college, decided to transfer to Western Washington University.
Park was pragmatic about her decision, noting that Western has the major she wants to pursue as an undergraduate — a dual anthropology and biology degree. With her federal Pell Grant and financial aid from the state, her out-of-pocket college costs will be considerably lower next year.
The school's financial aid office hasn't processed Park's application yet, but the maximum federal grant she could receive at Western is $5,350 and the maximum state need grant would be $5,030. She may qualify for other scholarships, paid jobs on campus and loans, as well.
Park is happy to be back in Tacoma after her time on the East Coast. And her parents are glad she'll be just a three-hour drive from home when she goes to school in the fall, joining about 1,000 other students transferring to Western.
When to transfer, when to stay put
Nassirian said a 5 to 10 percent shift in transfer applications could be due to any number of external factors including a winning basketball team, but up to 30 percent increases he's hearing about are most likely due to the economy.
Nassirian noted, however, that students may not save much money if they switch schools after more than two years at a college. This may force them to spend an extra semester or two in class to get a degree because the last two years of a degree are tailored by each institution.
Gottlieb has some advice for other students picking a college: Make sure that expensive private school is really what you want and need. She said after a few years of paying the pricey tuition you may start wondering if you'll have any money leftover for grad school.
"It will make it much easier for me to go to grad school if I go somewhere like Western," she said.