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Articles / Applying to College / Dream College vs. Debt-Free College?

Dream College vs. Debt-Free College?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | April 22, 2013

Question: I am trying to decide where to attend college this upcoming Fall. My first option is my dream. a prestigious university in my favorite city. My second option is a much smaller and lesser known school in a smaller city. If the financial situation at both were the same, I would pick the first in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, I would have to take out 15-20k in loans per year at my dream school. At my second option, I would graduate debt free. I am at the point where I will regret any university I pick; at one, I will regret the debt, the other, the dream lost. I know I could be happy at my second option, but I can’t stop comparing it to my dream.

Where is the line drawn between being optimistic and being foolish? Do I follow my heart or reason? Thank you so much for your advice!

Oy! A damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t decision. Those can be nasty, and –if you’re lucky–you won’t face too many in life. I’m sure this is very difficult for you, but you do seem to be approaching it in a mature and very reasonable way.

Yet, as much as I empathize with your dilemma, I also feel that it’s not appropriate for me–an Internet “Dean”–to weigh in on such a major choice without knowing you or at least a lot more about you.

However, I will share with you the story of “Caitlin,” a terrific and talented young woman in my orbit, who was facing a similar dilemma five years ago. She opted to pass up her dream school (which was Georgetown) to attend Lafayette College because Lafayette had offered her a big merit scholarship and she could graduate debt-free. I reminded her at the time that her four years at Lafayette would go fast and that it wouldn’t be long before she could apply to Georgetown for graduate school.

I also pointed out that she had the potential to be a star at Lafayette. So, although there was no guarantee that she’d be admitted to grad school at Georgetown, she ought to be able to position herself to do so while minimizing the costs of her undergrad education.

By the time Caitlin graduated from Lafayette last year, she had had the opportunity to work closely with faculty members and had earned the college’s highest honor. She had also accrued a long list of graduate school acceptances,including one from Georgetown. But, yet again, she decided to pass on Georgetown to make another choice.

One thing that you may discover in four years is that your “dream school” at age 18 may not be your dream school at age 22. But the debt will dog you regardless. Of course, no matter which college you choose, the other will be your “Road Not Taken,” and you may always wonder if you made the wisest choice.

But, before making ANY choice, here’s one thought: If you attend the pricier college, could you be in the running to be a Resident Advisor, which might cut out your room and board costs? (Some colleges offer deep discounts and even stipends for R.A’s; others are less generous. Also, at some schools, only seniors can have these jobs; sometimes, elsewhere, even sophomores can apply.) Although an R.A. job wouldn’t eliminate all of your annual debt, it might make a reasonable dent in it.

And how about A.P. or I.B. credits? If you enroll at your dream college, might you have enough to skip a semester or even a full year to cut costs?

Another consideration is your prospective major and career path. If you are looking down the road to med school or law school, you’ll probably also have more debt ahead. (That was the aforementioned Caitlin’s situation.) If you’re not thinking grad school, you may not be facing

additional debt, but this could mean you’ll have a harder time repaying your undergrad loans. Certain majors, however (e.g., engineering, computer science) MAY put you in a better spot to start paying off undergrad debt

right away than other majors will. So this has to be factored into the equation as you make the hard decision ahead.

If you want, let me know the names of the two schools in contention and perhaps I’ll have more to add once you do.

Finally, what advice is coming from your parents? Are they encouraging you to take the cheaper school or the more prestigious one? Although this may ultimately be YOUR decision, the peace that comes from it may be at least

partially affected by the level of support you get at home.

Good luck to you as you count down to May 1.


Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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