Why I turned down my dream school for financial security

Chicago Tribune Finance 4 months ago

As we roll further past the May 1 deadline for college decisions, I keep seeing the requisite litany of posts about where my high school-aged Facebook friends are headed for college.

They filter through my news feed in colorful fanfare, from the standard announcement to the acceptance letter photo to the friendship photo shoot where everyone wears their school's name emblazoned on a T-shirt. These posts are cheerful. They obscure any fears about the future. They get a lot of likes.

But the most triumphant kind of post you can make is one announcing that you've made it into your dream school — the one everyone knows you've always pined after.

For me, that school was Northwestern.

And although I was accepted there, I never got to make that post.

I had fantasized about attending Northwestern since was 8 years old, when my family drove past campus after a trip to the beach. The towering gray buildings and climbing vines fulfilled all my most romantic notions of what a college was supposed to look like, and I pictured myself wandering through its leafy expanses with an armful of books or sitting by the lake studying. It was a dream-making picture.

Later, when I realized during my freshman year of high school that I wanted to go into journalism, it felt almost like destiny. I decided Northwestern's journalism school, Medill — which had launched the careers of so many successful people — would be the vital first step in my climb. Other people seemed to agree when I told them so, informing me that their mother or brother or friend had gone there and just loved it, how it had been the gateway to amazing opportunities.

So, after careful research, I plotted out the next 15 years of my life: Northwestern for undergrad, Columbia University for grad school and then on to The New York Times. Or something like that. I plunged headfirst into a slew of AP classes and extracurriculars, usually sleeping less than six hours a night. On days where the pressure felt unbearable, I reminded myself that I was ambitious and that I had a purpose — I was going to get into the right school, the best school.

Cost was barely a blip on my radar. I knew college was expensive and that Northwestern was a particularly expensive college, but getting accepted felt like the far more insurmountable challenge. I figured the money issue would sort itself out with financial aid and maybe a couple of loans. In the meantime, all I could do was study.

And one December night in 2013, the work paid off — I found out I'd been accepted via early decision to Medill. I danced around the bathroom stall where I'd hidden away to open the decision email, utterly euphoric. Later, I burst out into the hallway of my high school after calling my mom (she cried) and shrieked to my friends, who quite literally picked me up and swung me around in circles, again and again and again. If my teenage life were a movie, it would have ended here in freeze frame, with a happy ending simply implied.

But endings are rarely so tidy. A few weeks later, after I'd joined Northwestern's Class of 2018 Facebook page and started chatting with potential roommates, I got an email containing my estimated financial aid. It wasn't enough. The number I was expected to pay each year took my breath away — $15,000 more than I was projected to make my first year out of school.

Panicked, I pawed at my phone calculator and added up the loans I would need to take on. It totaled around $80,000 to $85,000 of debt. OK, so that is a lot, I thought. But plenty of people had student loans, right? It would be difficult, but I could make it work somehow.

To prove that to myself, I took out a piece of paper and tried to figure out my living expenses post-graduation — how I could pay for rent, insurance, transportation, food and loans each month. The numbers piled up by the thousands and quickly spilled over my $30,000-a-year budget. It wouldn't just be difficult. It would be impossible.

We drove to Evanston a few days later to meet with Northwestern's financial aid office to plead my case. My parents had recently gone through an expensive divorce, and I had two more siblings who needed to go to college. Was there any way my financial aid could be increased?

They were sympathetic, offering me work study and a form for filing a financial appeal. But in the end, it wasn't enough. After months of back and forth with the financial aid office, we realized that I needed to pull out. And because the negotiation process had extended past the May 1 decision deadline, the freshman scholarship offers from my other school options had expired. To retain those scholarships before enrolling, I would need to take a gap year.

My mom and I went into my high school's guidance office near the end of May, so that I could officially withdraw. My adviser — who had helped me through the application process — seemed disappointed when I told him my plan. I remember that he chose his words carefully. He understood, of course, that finances were a constraint. But still, were we sure that this was the right decision?

"It's just that it's Emma's dream," he said.

My dream. Can you put a price on a dream? And more importantly, were my goals suddenly unattainable now that I wasn't going to my dream school, the "right" school?

I went through with the withdrawal, which launched the darkest period of my life. I lost 15 pounds, watched my friends leave for school one by one and hid away in the darkness of my bedroom — heart pumping, tears leaching out the corners of my eyes. Suddenly, after years of meticulous planning, my life was in free fall.

I told myself that I was being responsible and that I had made the adult choice. But when I told other people — especially adult people — what I'd done, I watched their faces falter. But you're so smart. But Northwestern opens doors for people. You can't make those kinds of connections anywhere else. Isn't that what you've always wanted? Or they'd suggest, unhelpfully, that maybe I hadn't considered all my options. What if you became an RA? What if you commuted? What if you worked three jobs? A friend's aunt even suggested that I try suing my dad for his 401K.

When I look back on this, I am angry. I don't begrudge Northwestern for its price or that it didn't give me the financial aid I needed. I don't begrudge the countless people who told me I was making a mistake.

What I do resent is the notion of necessity surrounding my college decision, the make-or-break logic that insists that if and where you choose to go to college as a senior in high school determines the viability of your success. As if I, at 17 years old, had tossed away my one and only golden opportunity.

Now I'm 21 years old, nearing the end of my junior year. I admittedly have no way of knowing if the progression of my life is anywhere close to being linear and upwards, or if I still have a shot at working somewhere like The New York Times. Here is what I do know: By next year, I will have a college degree. I will have had four internships, editor positions at my school's publications and reasonable assuredness about the security of my future. All this I have managed without the grace of Northwestern's name on my resume.

Once the next decision day comes, I know that there will be countless 17-year-olds just like me who will be told that to attend the school of their dreams — Northwestern or otherwise — is worth sinking into tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

If I could, I would tell each of them how wrong this is. I would tell them that despite my fears, college has still been a place for me to grow, and feel challenged, and seek out the opportunities I thought might otherwise be inaccessible. I would tell them that they're not sacrificing their dreams by choosing financial security.

I know I wish more people had told me so when I was 17.

ekrupp@chicagotribune.com

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