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One of Tom Woodbury’s sisters went to Vanderbilt University, the other to Boston College. But they didn’t choose those pricey private colleges during a financial market meltdown that took a sizeable chunk of the family’s college savings.

So the younger Woodbury, a senior at Arlington High School, is leaning toward the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which costs less than half as much as many of its private counterparts. The more the Dow Jones industrial average declines, the more the state’s flagship university seems to come up in conversation, he said.

“I’ve been hearing ‘UMass, UMass’ around the house for a while now,” he said dryly, after attending a UMass recruiting visit Thursday afternoon with 30 classmates. “I’m getting the hint.”

Cost, always a major factor in choosing a college, has taken on paramount importance this fall as high school seniors decide where to apply.

Many parents, gun-shy over plummeting retirement funds and home values, are recoiling at the prospect of a high-priced college, and urging their children toward more affordable alternatives in what higher education specialists refer to as a “flight to price.”

They predict public universities will see a surge in interest, while some pricier private colleges, especially those with relatively small endowments and modest financial aid budgets, will receive fewer applications.

While application figures won’t be available until next year, recruiters at the state’s public colleges report unusually high turnouts at college fairs and campus open houses this month. Amid turbulence in the stock market, which coincided with the start of the college selection process, students are peppering admissions officers with questions about financial aid and loans.

“This year is going to be all about economics,” said Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College.

Just as parents have watched in horror as their investments went up in smoke, colleges have seen their endowments decline. Their losses could limit their financial aid budgets at a time when demand for reduced tuition will probably escalate.

“As families suffer through the meltdown, so are the schools,” said Stephen Michaud, a college consultant in Norwell. “It’s definitely going to have an impact on what schools can provide in financial aid.”

Michaud, who advises one family whose six-figure college fund lost 65 percent in one week, said parents are taking a keen interest in the University of Massachusetts system and the state’s public colleges, which cost an average of $6,400 a year. Enrollment at state public colleges rose sharply this fall, an increase that administrators attributed to the slumping economy.

The projected rise in families seeking financial aid is not expected to have a major effect at the wealthiest schools, such as Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, and Wellesley, which admit students without considering their ability to pay and meet families’ full demonstrated need.

But the vast majority of colleges, from small schools such as Simmons to large universities like Northeastern, lack such resources and must carefully consider finances as they assemble their incoming class. Some educators fear that a sustained economic downturn will make colleges, particularly smaller schools that depend heavily on tuition, more dependent on students who can pay full freight, and less able to meet full financial need.

“I can imagine that’s only going to increase, and that has obvious implications for access,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Colleges say they hope to expand financial aid to avoid pricing families out, and that they do not believe the economy will force major changes in their admissions and financial aid practices.

“A lot depends on how quickly and if this all settles down,” said Laurie Pohl, vice president for enrollment and student affairs at Boston University, which costs about $50,000 a year. BU recently imposed a hiring freeze and a moratorium on new construction projects in anticipation of increased demand for financial assistance.

“If the external environment remains as chaotic as it has been, I think it’s going to be very difficult,” Pohl said.

Surveys prompted by the recent economic troubles suggest that families are adjusting their college plans. Half say they are limiting their child’s college choices to less expensive options and more than half are considering in-state, public colleges, according to ApplyWise.com, an online college admissions counseling service.

Nearly 90 percent of families reported cutting back on spending to set more aside for college. A separate survey, conducted by MeritAid.com, found that more than half of students are considering a less prestigious college because of cost.

“I’m definitely seeing more families put a financial ‘safety school’ on their list,” said Mindy Popp, a college consultant in Newton.

Still, some college administrators say families will be willing to sacrifice for a college degree.

“With a doubt, price will be on families’ minds,” said Philomena Mantella, vice president for enrollment management at Northeastern University. “But they are sophisticated consumers. They will look beyond the price. Value is what really drives decisions.”

But this fall, students seem particularly motivated by the bottom line. Shayna Bailey, associate director of admissions at Framingham State College, said a recent visit to Waltham High School drew nearly 70 students, well over twice as many students as usual. And UMass-Amherst’s fall open house, which brought more than 5,000 prospective students to campus on Saturday, filled up earlier than in previous years, officials said.

At Arlington High School, students crammed into the library to hear Danny Barr, a 26-year-old assistant admissions director at UMass-Amherst. Right off the bat, Barr stressed to the seniors the bottom line — $18,000 annually for students from Massachusetts.

For price-conscious students like Alex Uteshev, that figure drowned out the rest of Barr’s pitch.

“So many schools are $50,000 a year now,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Personally, this isn’t just my first choice, this is where I have to get in.”

But many students said they were applying to a range of colleges with little regard to cost, and would worry about paying for it later. As Barr told the students, the average grade point average (3.5) and SAT score (1,155) for entering UMass freshmen, many sighed in regret.

“Right now, they are far more worried about where they can get in,” said guidance counselor Lynna Williams.

But the two are related, some note. With applications surging at UMass-Amherst in recent years, only about 63 percent of students are accepted, far less than in the past.

Catherine Leger, the head of the guidance department at Brockton High School, said she is pushing her son, a senior, to attend UMass next year. Whether he can get in is another question.

“We’re tapped. We’re pushing him to the state schools,” she said. “But they are only going to get more competitive.”