Jasmine White was accepted to Morgan State University, her dream college, almost 10 years ago. But the New Yorker discovered she could not afford the out-of-state tuition.
"I just started crying because I had no idea where I was going to get [the money] before class started," White recalled.
Instead of coming to Baltimore, she earned an associate's degree at a community college in New York, and served five years in the Army Reserve.
Now 26, she is finally enrolling at Morgan State this fall. With the experiences she has had, she believes she will be able to better focus on her studies than she could have when she was fresh out of high school.
"I think I'll be more mature," White said. "I won't really be interested in all the partying and the distractions that's going on."
White's path through higher education is growing increasingly common. About half of the undergraduate students in the University System of Maryland started their college careers in a different school, officials say, and the number of transfers is rising. (The figures do not include the University of Maryland University College, a primarily online university in which nearly all are transfer students.)
Morgan State, a public university outside of the University System of Maryland, is enrolling more than 450 transfer students this fall.
Those numbers reflect national trends. Educators and analysts credit the economic meltdown and slow recovery: More students, looking to stretch their education dollar, are completing half of their college credits in cheaper two-year programs before moving on to a four-year college for their full bachelor's degree.
"In the past I think there was the assumption that students were starting at community college because they weren't ready to go to a four-year school," said Janet L. Marling, the director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia. "Now we're seeing people exercise choice."
Colleges are welcoming the surge. They are stepping up their efforts to recruit students from two-year and other four-year schools — sometimes offering financial incentives — and creating programs to address the specific needs of transfer students.
Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, says the historical distrust at many four-year schools about the caliber of education at community colleges has waned.
"The shift that you see is the recognition by even the most elite institutions that most of the talent in higher education is sitting in community colleges," he said. "There's a tremendous opportunity to bring in diverse students by establishing community partnerships."
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the state "stands out in having a very constructive collaborative relationship with community colleges."
Maryland's four-year schools are working more closely with community colleges, he says, and establishing pipelines to allow students to transfer more easily.
Towson University in particular has moved aggressively to enroll more transfer students, according to Ben Passmore, an assistant vice chancellor at the state university system who studies enrollment trends.
Towson is opening a new academic building at Harford Community College in Bel Air this fall to offer a seamless transfer for graduates of Harford and Cecil community colleges. The university also has partnerships with other community colleges to lure students, offers academic assistance to transfers, and tracks how they are performing.
Nationwide, about 45 percent of students at four-year colleges — both public and private — transferred in from a community college, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in 2012. The proportion in Maryland was 40 percent.
The University System of Maryland and the Maryland Higher Education Commission track the number of students who transfer between institutions annually, but do not keep data on the total number of transfer students enrolled at a school at any one time.
The number of students who transfer to schools in the University System of Maryland from four-year colleges has remained steady over time, according to Passmore. But the number of transfers from community colleges has grown from about 9,400 students in 2008 to nearly 12,000 in 2012 — an increase of about 25 percent.
Maryland universities are expanding agreements to guarantee admission to community college graduates who meet academic requirements. Some are adding programs to lure transfer students from community colleges and other schools.
St. Mary's College of Maryland signed an agreement to guarantee admission to graduates of the College of Southern Maryland and to allow students at the community college to enroll in both institutions simultaneously.
The college also allows the "reverse transfer" of credits earned at St. Mary's so students can earn an associate's degree at the College of Southern Maryland.
In 2011, Frostburg State University began offering scholarships for graduates of any community college in the state who earn a GPA of 3.0. Frostburg officials say they enrolled their largest transfer class ever last fall.
New University of Baltimore President Kurt L. Schmoke said last week that he plans to visit every community college president in the state as he steps up recruitment from the two-year colleges.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has focused on retaining and graduating the transfer students it already has. About half of the students at UMBC transferred there from another college.
Diane M. Lee, UMBC's vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, says the university is working more closely with community colleges to ensure class credits will fulfill core requirements, so students don't end up taking classes at community college that will be counted as electives, or not at all, by UMBC.
UMBC officials have interviewed professors at some local community colleges to better understand what students are learning, Lee says. She says community colleges and UMBC both benefit by working together more closely.
"We don't want to go in with an arrogant stance" when working with community college leaders, Lee said.
The university has been overhauling its approach to transfer students with a nearly $2.6 million, three-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Universities need to provide transfer students with a different kind of support, Lee said.
"They're more mature, they have different experiences, but they still have needs that we need to address," she said. "When we talk about the importance of welcoming transfer students, it's real on this campus."
Among other programs, the college offers an "early warning" system to help support students who begin to struggle academically.
White, the New Yorker with her heart set on Morgan State, says she was disappointed when she realized she would not be able to enroll straight out of high school.
Now, however, she's satisfied with the way things worked out. She earned her associate's degree in liberal arts from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her family has moved to Essex, so she now qualifies for in-state tuition in Maryland.
White will receive a new scholarship Morgan State is launching this year for students who have earned their associate's degree. Morgan State President David Wilson has written to every community college president in the state to spread word of the program.
White attended a transfer orientation session and an open house for transfer students this summer. At the orientation session, White met other students in her major — actuarial science — and has mapped out plans for the next several semesters with the help of a Morgan adviser. At the open house, White and her family learned about financial aid and scholarship options.
White said she is "not as nervous and intimidated" as she was when she began at community college. She is confident she can earn her bachelor's degree in two years.
"I feel like things happen in mysterious ways," she said.