What Price Do You Pay for Giving Up a Dream School to Avoid Debt?


By Nina Biagini for Sapling

In 2006, I was accepted to my dream school, New York University. When I visited the campus the second time—knowing I had been accepted—my love for the school grew. I even bought an NYU sticker for my car, which, in my mind, was as good as signing an acceptance letter in blood.

Here’s what you should know about my story: I am fortunate because my parents were able to save money for my college.

Both of my parents were the first in their families to attend college, so saving for this—from the time I was born, even when it wasn’t easy—was important to them. At the same time, by not writing me a blank check, I would be forced to make some big girl decisions.

The number was generous, but in no way would have gotten me through four years at NYU. Even with the financial aid package I was offered, it would only have gotten me through two.

Still, I decided to send in my acceptance letter. Because everyone takes out loans, right? That’s just what people do.

Or do they? While preparing my college applications, my dad’s story haunted me. He’d walked onto the Northwestern campus and fell in love. Like me, he had worked so hard to be accepted. But he realized he could not ask his parents—a barber and an executive assistant—to take on that burden, and he couldn’t do it himself, either. So he ended up at a great state school.

This story had made me sad because I knew that the only reason he couldn’t go to the dream school he’d worked so hard to get into was money, and I swore it’d never happen to me.

But as I vowed to do anything to make my NYU dream happen—taking out as many loans as necessary—a weird tension descended on our house. My family supported me, but they worried that I saw loans as a necessary evil, an answer to my problem.

For some people, loans are necessary evils. Many don’t have money from their parents and have to go it alone. But I am fortunate that it wasn’t the case for me. Still, when we broke down what my monthly loan payment would be after graduation, it was a nauseating number.

I should mention that there was a school I’d been accepted to that was very much within my price range. It was my backup, and, ironically, the same state school my dad had attended years before.

When I saw that monthly loan payment, I could no longer deny that the sound financial decision would be to forgo NYU and attend the state school, ensuring I would graduate debt-free.

But did I really?

My college wasn’t a good fit for a number of other reasons, and NYU has remained the dream that alluded me. To this day, I sometimes get insecure and feel the need to tell people I was accepted to NYU. How embarrassing that at 28 I am still carrying around insecurity and regret.

While I don’t carry the monetary weight of student debt, I carry an emotional debt that occasionally manifests itself as resentment. When other people complain about their loans, I think, “If you didn’t want loans, then you should have chosen to be unhappy like me!” But that isn’t fair, and I quickly tell that voice inside me to hush. I’m not saying that a monetary debt and emotional one are the same. I am saying that college is unfairly expensive, and no one gets off scot-free.

That said, I must admit that realizing on graduation day that I only had one small loan that I could pay off before interest began to accrue, felt amazingly good. Post-graduation, I worked for a non-profit for a year. I eventually moved across the country to San Francisco to start a new career and then back to Chicago after a couple of years. None of those things would have been possible if I had college debt. I could not be more thankful for those experiences.

Yet, if I told you I was completely over saying goodbye to the dream of NYU, I would be lying. I did everything right. I got the grades and the test scores. I even had money from my parents. And I still couldn’t swing it.

Something has to change.

It would be great if that change was the cost of higher education. But our conversations about education need to change, as well. I was told that if I worked hard, I could do anything. Turns out, that isn’t exactly true. And that’s okay! But if that’s the case, then let’s be careful about how we talk about higher education with kids.

Perhaps there’s no such thing as graduating debt-free in America. I made a choice not to have to make a payment to Sallie Mae every month; others took out loans. But we’re all paying. Until we have education reform, the choices we make about college can haunt us, in one way or another, long after graduation.

A version of this post originally appeared on Sapling.

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