Katie Aldrich told her parents she was unhappy soon after she arrived at Hamilton College, a small, well-regarded school in Upstate New York. For her, the college was too small, too isolated and had far too much snow.

"She felt it would be easier to stay where she was than to do the application process all over again," said her mother, Julie Aldrich, recalling the conversations they had in fall 2000. "But she would feel she was settling, and she did not want to live with regret. I couldn't argue with that logic."

By the following summer, Katie Aldrich had enrolled at George Washington University. She was enthralled by the opportunities for political science majors, the shopping in Georgetown and the relative infrequency of white crystals of frozen water falling from the sky. "Looking back on my choice to transfer, I am very happy with it," she said.

With that decision, she joined a growing number of college students who are part of the transfer generation. They are finding undergraduate institutions receptive to their changes of heart, and sometimes even deciding while in high school that two or more colleges would be better than one.

Well aware of the anxiety and uncertainty of applying to college, many high school counselors also are reminding seniors that if the first college they choose doesn't work out, they can easily find another.

To this way of thinking, picking a college is not nearly as important as picking a spouse, with all the emotional and financial trauma if the choice is wrong, but more like buying a house, where mistakes are easier to rectify.

Sarah Nesnow, for instance, said her decision to transfer to St. Mary's College of Maryland her junior year "quite literally saved my life."

"The admissions department made it easy to transfer -- easier than applying as a freshman -- and those were the best two years of my life so far," Nesnow said.

Department of Education surveys indicate that about a third of U.S. undergraduates change colleges at least once. Many of those are community college students moving to four-year universities, but at least 20 percent are students who, like Aldrich and Nesnow, started in one four-year school and transferred to another.

There are financial and academic benefits for both the colleges and the students. Transfers help the universities make up the money they lose when freshmen drop out. Transfer students are older, often more focused and considered more likely to succeed in college.

Also, with tuition and living costs rising, some high school seniors opt to take their basic college courses at inexpensive community colleges before transferring to universities with more specialized offerings. "It is not because they are not smart enough, but because it's that much more affordable," said Eric Freedman, a Michigan State University journalism professor and author of the book "How to Transfer to the College of Your Choice."

Every transfer has a different story, some more traumatic than others. Sarah Hirschman graduated from Falls Church High School in Fairfax County in 1995 and, with her head full of show tunes, enrolled at the Boston Conservatory to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. Two years later, despite good grades and class performance assessments, college officials told her she didn't have enough talent and, as they put it, "artistically dismissed" her.

It had happened to many students before, but that did not ease the pain. For a while, Hirschman could not find a school willing to let her transfer and complete her degree on time. But George Mason University eagerly accepted her and provided the courses that led to a musical theater degree in 2 1/2 years.

Hirschman is a financial aid officer at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the District and, she said, "I am currently in rehearsals for 'The Pirates of Penzance' " at the West End Dinner Theatre in Alexandria.

Transfer students often have different personal priorities. Nesnow said she loved St. Mary's College in part because it was so much smaller than Virginia Commonwealth University, where she spent her first two years. But Alyssa D. Rice transferred from St. Mary's to West Virginia University because she thought the school lacked diversity and could be an expensive haven for slackers. "When my folks asked why, I told them that I could watch 'Law & Order' all day for 8 grand [$8,000] instead of 21 grand," she said. "At WVU, it takes self-discipline and motivation . . . to do well."

Amity Clausen realized quickly that she wasn't happy at UCLA and returned to her home state to attend the University of Oregon in the last trimester of her freshman year. She listed the benefits: "Tons cheaper, all my [Advanced Placement] high school credits transferred over, whereas UCLA would not accept them, and the Ducks eventually started beating the Bruins in football."

Transferring can have a downside. Eugene Kim said he not only lost a semester of credits when he moved from James Madison University to the College of William and Mary, but he did not feel as though he totally belonged at the latter, despite the school's excellent courses.

A few selective schools have reduced transfer acceptances to make room for more freshmen, and Princeton University takes no transfers at all. Most colleges, however, say they are happy to receive qualified students so committed that they are willing to put up with the trouble of transferring.

Katie Aldrich, now a junior at George Washington University, said she has the hang of it: "Picking a college is extremely difficult, but the more times you do it, the better at it you get."

Sarah Hirschman works days as a financial aid officer at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and acts in local theaters at night.