For Laverne D'Silva, earning her spot as valedictorian at Tampa Bay Technical High School meant missing social events to study alone in her room.
That was okay because soon she would trade report cards for dorm parties and car rides to school for morning walks to class.
When acceptance letters from Florida's major universities started arriving in the mail, she set her heart on the University of Central Florida.
Then her parents, both of whom are in the tech support business, started talking finances. If she went to school in Orlando, she would graduate from college in debt. If she lived at home in Brandon and went to the University of South Florida, she would come out ahead.
Staying put was the sensible decision.
"At first I was disappointed, but when I sat down and really looked at everything, I knew USF was the best choice," said D'Silva, who will graduate Thursday from Tampa Bay Tech's health science program with a 6.75 GPA.
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This year, Hillsborough educators say that high school graduates are considering the sagging economy as they make decisions about their future. Honor graduates enroll at local or community colleges to minimize costs. Students choose majors based on the job market. And scholarship recipients who receive more than enough money to pay for school-associated costs save the difference for an uncertain future.
"(Students) are worried about the economy and thinking long term," said Theresa Nissen, college and career counselor at Armwood High School.
Applications to local colleges and universities are soaring. Freshman enrollment at Hillsborough Community College has more than doubled since 2008, said college spokeswoman Ashley Carl.
Record numbers of Hillsborough County students applied to USF since the economy slumped, so many that getting into the school has become tougher.
In 2005, more than 60 percent of applicants from Hillsborough County gained acceptance into USF, according to the Times.
Last fall about 3,771 Hillsborough students applied. Only 1,909 were admitted, at least a 10 percent decline, university records show.
In addition to accepting Bright Futures, USF offers freshman scholarships for Florida residents and other financial incentives to applicants with exemplary school records.
"We are definitely seeing an increase in the quality of students that are applying," said Robert Spatig, the university's director of undergraduate admissions.
Kayla Propst, who graduates from Armwood High on Monday with a 5.6 GPA, opted to go to USF rather than her dream school, Ohio State University.
Out-of-state costs, including textbooks and living expenses, totaled $33,000 a year, Propst said.
She will pay nothing out of pocket to go to USF, thanks to her Florida Bright Futures Scholarship and financial aid.
Propst, who plans to major in accounting, will live at home in Seffner and cram a full load of classes into two days. The rest of the week, she'll work as a cashier at Winn-Dixie to help her mother with day-to-day expenses.
"Paying for college life is my responsibility, not hers," Propst said.
Durant High graduate Ashleigh Powell plans to pay for USF with a Bright Futures Scholarship and support from her grandparents. She considered UCF but decided to stay at home in Valrico to start a savings fund.
"I will be able to make a down payment on my own home my first year out of college with the money I saved," she said.
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D'Silva, the Tampa Bay Tech grad, said most of her friends are staying local.
Honors graduate Rikesh Patel was accepted at the University of Florida, but USF offered him $6,000 more in scholarship money. By staying home in Tampa, he doesn't have to work and will have more time to study. He plans to major in biology and wants to go to medical school.
"I think sometimes when people go away to school, their grades slip," Patel said. "This way I might do better."
Neither Patel nor D'Silva worries about their parents getting in the way of their social life. They plan to participate in campus activities and hang out at football games. D'Silva, a high school soccer player, hopes to play on the Bulls team.
"We can still have the college experience," she said. "Leaving home, that was our dream, but it's just not possible now unless we want to go into debt."
Reporter Justin George and Kelly Price of tb-two* contributed to this report. Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]