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Articles / Paying for College / Free Ride Near Home or Pricey Elite Eastern School?

Free Ride Near Home or Pricey Elite Eastern School?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Dec. 15, 2013

Question: My son has the opportunity to attend a local state university for free (tuition, room, board and books) for four years based on his being named a National Merit Commended Scholar. Of course, he scoffs at the notion of going to school so close to home, and instead has his heart set on attending a prestigious East Coast university. We are a family of very limited financial means, and I don’t want him to graduate from undergraduate college with a lot of student debt because he plans to go on to med school. We don’t know yet what a possible financial aid package to the East Coast school may look like, but I think $1 in student loans is $1 too much. What would you advise?

This question cannot be answered without a resounding (but unsatisfying) “it depends.”

Have you tried the online Net Price Calculators for your son’s top-choice East Coast schools? Although I always take NPC results with a block of salt, they can be a good starting point if you want to get at least a ballpark sense of what your family contribution is likely to be.

If your son is admitted to any of the snazziest of the East Coast colleges, and you are indeed a family of very limited means, he may receive an excellent financial aid “package” which could include very little loan or even no loan at all.

So before losing too much sleep over the decision, I advise you to …

a. Do the Net Price Calculators to see if this helps to allay your fears

b. Wait until your son has his admission verdicts (and I realize this isn’t easy)

While I certainly agree that you don’t want your son to be burdened by debt when he graduates, especially with med school ahead of him, the opportunity to attend a top college or university with an international student body (and reputation) could justify taking on some debt because of the value of the broadening experience and of the lifelong contacts it will provide.

On the other hand, if he attends the local public university, he may be in a better position to stand out in a crowd and snag the juiciest research gigs and internships which, in turn, will fortify his med school applications down the road.

But it’s really impossible to provide accurate advice without knowing exactly where your son has been admitted and exactly how much debt he may have to take on.

Keep in mind, too, that it’s not too late for your son to consider some other colleges where he may be a contender for big merit bucks … places that would allow him to travel out of state but without accruing debt. These colleges may not offer the prestige of the most sought-after institutions, but they could provide a broadening experience along with the chance for you son to stay on track for med school.

Please write back again when your son receives his full list of acceptances and aid awards and remind me of our exchange today. Once your son has his actual decisions … and dollar amounts … in front of him, I can advise you more responsibly.


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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