A zillion different factors are at play when it comes to a student’s college choice. A college’s features play a role, such as whether a campus is in the city or the suburbs, whether or not it has an NCAA Division I athletic program, or whether it’s close to or far from home. Reputation can make a difference for some. So can campus size. Yet while many say that cost is a critical factor in college choice, their actions tell a different story.
It’s befuddling to witness a student who has an over-the-moon financial aid package opt instead to go to a school that will require student loans. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Jennine Capo Crucet asks, “Did I choose the wrong college?” Capo Crucet notes that she applied to only two colleges, Cornell and the University of Florida. (That in itself was a huge gamble on her future, best discussed at another time.) She was offered a free ride at the University of Florida (yes, including room and board). But then she was offered a spot at Cornell. Capo Crucet took out a loan and her parents took out a second mortgage – and she was Cornell-bound. Gulp.
Now graduated and having secured an assistant professorship at a midwestern university, Capo Crucet revisited her family’s decision-making process. Like all parents, hers wanted the best for their daughter. They bought Cornell’s sales pitch. Capo Crucet writes, “I didn’t know what we were deciding on was a kind of access and privilege that I didn’t yet understand.”
Access and privilege is real. But’s it’s also relative. While the trajectory of Capo Crucet’s life may have been different had she graduated from the University of Florida, that’s not a guarantee. What is guaranteed are the student loans and second mortgage.
The process of applying for college involves an odd combination of reasoned judgment and whimsical imaginings. It is both head and heart. But having put their hopes and dreams into the hands of admissions committees, students have to be clear-eyed in their college choice. For the vast majority, that means putting head over heart and choosing the path with the least amount of debt attached.
Parents can make that decision process easier by laying the proper groundwork even before the student begins to build their college application list. That involves a frank discussion about what the family can afford to contribute to the student’s college education (no second mortgages or draining retirement accounts) and a commitment to go where the money is. Those ground rules become the touchstone that prevents wistfulness and FOMO (fear of missing out) from driving college choice.
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