I decided what college I was going to attend when I was 9 years old. Of course, it was another 9 years before the acceptance letter making my dream a reality arrived in my mailbox, but in my mind, it was a done deal at that point: my mind was set.
Elite College Cost
It didn’t matter to me that my school of choice – an elite East Coast university – came with a hefty price tag. At the time, annual tuition plus room and board was roughly $44,000. Multiplied by the cost of books, travel to and from campus (it was located a day’s drive away), and all the other ancillary costs associated with college attendance, it came out to closer to $50,000/year.
My parents, to their credit, didn’t shoot down my dream; they later confided in me that although the final costs of my collegiate experience were higher than they’d anticipated, that they realized to keep me from going – after nearly a decade of obsessing over this particular school – would have been cruel. They told me that if the costs had truly been too much for our family, that they would have shot me down before I ever got close to sending in an application.
Along the way, my dad lost his job, spent 6 months out of work, and ended up taking a lower-paying job during my first two years of college. This significantly impacted our financial aid package – for the better, actually – and I ended up with just under $20,000 in student loan debt on graduation day. Although I went to grad school (which was FAR costlier) and initially into a relatively low-paying field, I was able to pay all my loans off within 10 years of graduation.
I’ve had friends and extended family argue that I could have gotten my degree (a BA in history) from a cheaper state school. It’s a tempting argument for people to make: why go out of state to attend a college with a prestigious reputation when you can save money while earning the same degree?
My View Now
It’s a question my mentee – a high school senior attending a local private school – asked me this spring as she ruminated over her own college choice. She was deciding between our state’s marquee public school, and the best private school in the state. While she felt pulled by the “lower cost, same degree” argument, she knew there must be more to the story. Knowing my history, she asked me for a candid response.
This is what I told her:
When I first got to campus, I was overwhelmed. I’d gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond – everyone had come to campus with academic, artistic, and athletic accolades. For the first year, I seriously considered transferring home to a big state school, where I could get the same degree for less money, and lose myself in a sea of fish. But then my parents told me something that’s stuck with me ever since: college is about more than the classes you take. Over the next 3 years, I realized they were right. I started working with a professor on a research paper he was writing for a major academic publication; I joined a sorority, a campus dance team, and other university groups that gave me the chance to work with people from all over the world. I made contacts that have helped me to this day, both professionally and personally. Ultimately, your degree is a piece of paper; it is what goes on behind the scenes that maximizes your collegiate experience.
Could I have made those connections at a less-expensive school? Yes, I’m sure that I could have. But the name on my diploma might not have carried the same weight. When I tell people about my alma mater, it immediately affects how they see me. They make assumptions about me: that I must be smart, that I must be driven, that I must be a bit of a snob (all 3 are more or less true). But for prospective employers, the name on my diploma tells them that I’m willing to work hard and make sacrifices to attain the very highest levels of success, no matter what the cost. There are good and bad things to that perception, but it’s a perception that opens doors nonetheless.
There’s not a lot of hard data on earnings potential for students who attend prestigious schools vs less-prestigious schools (note: a prestigious school can be a top public school, like UVA or Berkeley). But for me, I know it was the right decision.