The kids are headed back to college, but with fewer Macs.

A recent survey from consumer electronics website Retrevo says that 49% of students plan to buy Windows laptops and 34% want netbooks. Only 17% said they would buy Macs.

What happened, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)? Last March, a Morgan Stanley study found that 40% of college students planned to buy a Mac. Sure, these are different surveys from different providers with different methodologies, but the gulf is enough to suggest there's been movement in market sentiment. What gives?

Retrevo's answer is, not surprisingly, the economy. Kids or their parents aren't willing to pay $1,000 for a new Mac when they can get a comparable PC from Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) or Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) for much less. Or better still, a netbook for as little as $200.

There are plenty to choose from, thanks to increasing interest in this form factor among chip makers and hardware and software suppliers. Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) was an early adopter, but now NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA), Nokia (NYSE:NOK), and Sony (NYSE:SNE) also want in on this market.

Apple is one of the few that doesn't, if the public statements of CEO Steve Jobs and COO Tim Cook are to be believed. I've backed that decision more than once. Apple doesn't do well playing follow-the-leader.

But there's also little doubt that high-function, lower-cost, small form factor machines are here to stay -- at least for a while. Apple needs an answer for this market; it needs to ship the iTablet. Soon.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple and a stock position in Nokia at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy would rather forget its college days.