Phylicia Bongiorno knew even before her freshman year at Edinboro University that she probably would not stay around long enough to graduate.
Her first choice always had been to attend a small private college, but she could not afford it right out of high school. So like a shopper wandering in a supermarket aisle, she used her time at the state school near her hometown of Erie to select courses that would easily transfer -- a music class here, an accounting class there.
Then, as planned, she transferred her junior year to Carlow University after her family's finances changed.
"I learn better in a small environment," said Ms. Bongiorno, 21, explaining her move last fall to the 2,100-student campus roughly a fourth the size of Edinboro. "It feels homey here."
There was a time when that kind of migration would draw little if any notice from Carlow or other four-year schools.
As more students show a desire to transfer, schools are focusing attention on them as never before. In the hyper-competitive world of college admissions, transfer students have become the latest sought-after commodity, viewed as increasingly important to keeping seats filled and diversifying the student body through their varied backgrounds.
Obvious sources are community college students looking to finish out a bachelor's degree. But admissions staff at four-year schools say it makes sense to have policies just as welcoming to those who jump from one four-year school to another.
Carlow, for one, talks openly about the need to boost the 50 or 60 traditional-age transfer students it typically gets each year, about 21 percent of its incoming students. "I told my faculty that we should be taking in 200 or 250," said Margaret McLaughlin, provost and vice president of academic affairs.
Other schools have made themselves more attractive by maximizing the credits they accept, or setting up one-stop transfer centers equipped to give on-the-spot evaluations of how many credits will transfer.
Some schools throw in something that those students once rarely received -- transfer scholarships.
"It used to be that transfer students were, frankly, the orphans of the admissions process. They simply showed up," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the Washington D.C.-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
But they have become more important, he said, in a mobile society that is starting to shed the notion that a college degree is the product of just one school.
In fact, more than 60 percent of the nation's traditional-aged students, ages 18 to 24, attend more than one institution as an undergraduate, and roughly 35 percent attend more than two, said Clifford Adelman, senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
They range from transfer students to those who simply pick up one or more courses at another school, according to the data culled from U.S. Department of Education transcript studies.
Among traditional-age students who begin at a four-year college and earn a bachelor's degree, 20 percent earn it from a different institution from the one in which they started, he said.
They "swirl" among colleges, experts say. Sometimes they attend two or more institutions simultaneously, a phenomenon encouraged by the availability of Internet courses.
Those nomadic tendencies are not lost on college admissions officers who were worried about projections of fewer high school graduates, even before the recession hit. The worries are particularly acute at tuition-dependent private colleges that must compete with lower-priced public universities.
"In a state like Pennsylvania, you have all these private liberal arts colleges tripping over themselves competing with a very prosperous public sector," said John Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in Brevard, N.C.
Student migration cuts both ways.
On one hand, some families squeezed by the recession are defecting from private colleges to lower-priced state schools. The phenomenon was noticeable last fall across Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, contributing to the largest transfer student increase in system history.
But as public universities become more crowded, students sometimes have trouble getting courses they need to graduate on time. That gives private colleges another selling point.
"The private colleges are promising, 'You come to us and we guarantee the courses you need,'" Dr. Gardner said.
That concept is evident in a relationship that one private California campus, Notre Dame de Namur University, developed with nearby San Francisco State University, which was hit by state budget cuts that lessened course availability.
Both schools agreed to notify students on the San Francisco campus that certain courses they might need are available at Notre Dame de Namur and would be accepted for credit at San Francisco State.
"We weren't looking to get students to actually transfer, although it wouldn't be surprising if that was one of the consequences -- that we picked some students up," said Richard Rossi, spokesman for Notre Dame de Namur. "It behooves us to keep our classes filled."
But tuition revenue is not the only upside to transfer students, who sometimes graduate at rates equal to or better than students arriving as freshmen, officials at some schools say.
"You're investing in a survivor," Dr. Gardner said. "These are students who survived the first year somewhere else."
Even schools long considered a mecca for transfer students are reacting to the newfound competition.
Robert Morris University, where 37 percent of undergraduates last fall came from other institutions, wants to make itself even more attractive to them. This fall, it will increase maximum yearly merit aid offered to transfer students by $1,000 to $3,000, and for the first time, they can receive up to $5,100 a year in institutional need-based aid.
"In many respects, transfer students are acting like traditional freshmen," said Mike Frantz, vice president of enrollment management at Robert Morris. "We're seeing transfer students apply to multiple institutions and weigh both transfer of credits and cost more than they would have a decade ago."
The federal government only recently began requiring colleges to report transfer totals, and thus conclusive year-to-year trend data is not available. However, more than half the colleges surveyed last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling saw transfer enrollment increases, including 72 percent of public campuses and 45 percent of private schools.
Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities received 7,494 transfer students last fall from two- and four-year schools, a 12 percent increase.
Students jump between schools for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes it's a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend that sends them packing. Others get homesick on a campus too far from family. Still others sour on a program or decide they want a major not offered by the school.
Even a quarterback shuffle can drive someone away.
Gino Rometo, 22, of Plum, was a football scholarship student at Clarion University but lost his starting job as quarterback a couple years back when the "Golden Eagles" lost six of their first seven games. "I pretty much said this wasn't working out," he said.
So he switched to Washington & Jefferson College, where he quarterbacked a 9-2 football team, maintains a 3.5 GPA and plans to finish a business administration degree this fall.
"I love it here," he said.
Campus peer Leslie Carroll, 20, from Upper St. Clair, was happy to leave the University of Kentucky for the smaller confines of Washington & Jefferson. She wasted none of the credits from her three Kentucky semesters. "All of them transferred," she said.
Ms. Bongiorno, a double major in accounting and forensic accounting, said Carlow did not make her reapply, requiring her to submit only her transcripts. They also honored an $8,500 scholarship she qualified for the first time she applied. That aid and a change allowing her father to apply his military tuition benefit to her campus bill put Carlow within reach.
With so many students like her transferring, it follows that schools want to be positioned to receive them. But how do they straddle the line between welcoming an interested student and encroaching on another school's turf?
Community colleges regularly sign transfer agreements with four-year schools, and even let recruiters visit campus. But officials at four-year schools say they tread lightly when it comes to other four-year campuses, noting that national recruiting standards forbid them from initiating contact with those students.
"There are groups out there that want to sell you lists of transfer students," said Alton Newell, vice president for enrollment at Washington & Jefferson. "We don't subscribe to them. I can't go poaching from other schools, nor do I have any desire to do that."
Nor does he use names on file of students who chose other schools.
"For me to go back and write to students who did not matriculate and say, 'I hope college is going well. But if not, I am still here.' That's getting into the wild, wild West," he said "I don't want to see us go there."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.