HAVERHILL — After graduating in 2016 from Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, Kiley Broadhurst knew what she wanted next: a liberal arts college that offered a four-year degree and a break from New Hampshire's awful winters.
Her search ended at Eckerd College's waterfront campus on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Florida. The school's web page is filled with photos of tanned and giddy undergrads lounging in hammocks and playing volleyball in the sand by the bay. If a potential student misses the point, Eckerd's web page also notes that St. Pete's average year-round temperature is 74 degrees.
Broadhurst didn't miss the point.
“I went the following fall,” said Broadhurst, of Danville. “I'd always wanted to live somewhere warm. I just wanted to get away. I had the opportunity to do something big and exciting. I loved the weather. My professors were great. I met a lot of great people.”
And then she left Eckerd after one semester, because in addition to the bay-side hammocks, beach volleyball and great professors, there's also the price.
Full-time tuition and room and board at Eckerd comes in at $56,486 a year. That's just under a quarter million dollars for a bachelor's degree for students without scholarships or other aid.
Broadhurst knew the price was steep when she enrolled. By the end of the first semester, though, she said she felt the expenditure wasn't paying off because she still hadn't settled on a major and was paying for classes that might not count when she declared one. After a scholarship, her bill for the semester at Eckerd was $20,000.
Weeks after leaving, Broadhurst enrolled in the 2017 spring semester at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, becoming one of 1,900 so-called “reverse transfer” students who start their higher education at a four-year college, then transfer to the two-year school.
Overall that semester, 38 percent of 5,039 full- and part-time students had done just what Broadhurst did, said NECC spokeswoman Ernie Greenslade.
It's a departure from the past, when educational paths would have been much more likely to lead a student to a two-year school and then a transfer to a four-year one.
Financial reasons and more
Reverse transfers to NECC come mostly from UMass campuses at Amherst and Lowell and a range of private colleges and universities like Eckerd.
Occasionally, transfers come from Ivy League schools like Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, Greenslade said. They're leaving behind tuition bills they can't afford or a curriculum that is too demanding; homesickness they can't endure or a college experience that otherwise wasn't what they expected.
They're done with four-year schools, at least for now, but they're not done with college.
“They didn't necessarily find the right fit,” said Daniel Richer, an admissions recruitment officer at NECC. “For a number of reasons – academic, financial, maybe they just don't feel at home – they decide it might not be right for them. They want to continue their education and the best way to do that is to come back home and continue taking classes at Northern Essex. It's more affordable. It's closer to home.”
Full-time tuition at NECC is $6,800 a year, but so many students receive scholarships that the average bill is less than half that.
The number of reverse-transfer students attending the school in recent years has held steady at 34 or 35 percent of the total enrollment, although there are spikes and drops. Three-hundred and fifty-nine students from four-year colleges applied for admission to the semester that began Jan. 23, up 20 percent over last year's spring semester.
The number of students who transfer from four-year colleges and universities to two-year community colleges nationwide isn't tracked, said Martha Parham, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.
'We welcome them'
At NECC, Richer says the college benefits as well as the transfer students.
“They're a resource for our college, there's no doubt,” he said, suggesting the half-empty classrooms, stripped down curriculum and financial stresses the college might face without them. “They're a substantial part of our student body. We embrace it. We welcome them.”
There's a welcome mat for reverse-transfer students out at NECC's web page, where the college suggests it can fix whatever went wrong at a four-year school and help “get your education back on track.”
“Have you tried another college but had trouble making it work, whether socially, financially, or academically?” the site asks. “Then come to Northern Essex Community College! ... Our smaller class sizes and dedicated faculty make this college a great choice for you.”
That's the change Alexis Fontaine said she was looking for when she withdrew from the University of Connecticut at Storrs during the second semester of her sophomore year in 2016.
“A lot of times when you're in high school, they give you the impression that when you go to college, you should choose a four-year institution and go away from home,” said Fontaine, a 2015 graduate of Methuen High School. “For some people, that's great. I thought that's what I wanted. I thought I wanted to be further from home. Once I got out there, I realized I wasn’t ready for it."
Fontaine said she felt lost among the hundreds of students in UConn's lecture halls. She said she felt further disconnected by the long waiting lists for office visits taped to her professors' doors and by professors who didn't know her name even at the end of a semester.
“I know my professors at Northern Essex,” she said. “All my professors know me.”
Data was not immediately available on the number of NECC's reverse transfer students who finish their associate's degrees and transfer back to four-year schools for another attempt at a bachelor's.
Fontaine, now 21, plans to do so. She said she'll graduate from NECC with an associate's degree in communication this summer and is applying to Merrimack College in North Andover, Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett and the University of New Hampshire in Manchester.
Broadhurst moved to San Diego, California, last month and is taking the last two classes she needs for her associates degree online in time to graduate from NECC at the end of this semester.
She said her two-year degree from NECC will cost her $8,000 after scholarships and other assistance, compared to the $80,000 she would have spent for two years at Eckerd College. She's applying to San Diego State University, UMass Amherst and Salem (Massachusetts) State University to start working toward a four-year degree in the fall.
“I've had so many professors who genuinely care about students and are passionate about their work,” Broadhurst said of her time at NECC. “I don't want to say professors at bigger universities might not care as much, but at research universities, at larger universities, they're trying to get their own work d Storrs one. At NECC, they're just professors who want to help you succeed.”