That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? When you receive your acceptance letters at the end of the college application ordeal, there is that sigh of relief and the thought that you have finally gotten what you deserve.
It makes sense, because the Stuyvesant mentality is that if you are an intelligent, driven, hard-working student, then you will be rewarded after three and a half years’ worth of toil by an acceptance letter to Desirable University (you know, the names that grace not only the top of the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, but also the flags that contemptuously stare at you from walls of room 407), and thus you will be set for life. And so you do all of the following: you become a test-taking machine and ace all things SAT, you study hard even while taking a rigorous course load and wind up in the top five percent of your class, you devote all of your sparse spare time to a variety of extracurricular activities and programs, you spend hours writing and proofreading essays before submitting, and you wow your alumni interviewers with your conversational skills and spunky personality. Because of all of this, when you are finally accepted to Desirable University, you think that you, Well-Rounded Student, are entitled to that education.
The problem is that these days being admitted to Desirable University isn’t enough. I was Well-Rounded Student, as a scholar-writer-musician-volunteer. During my junior year, I thought getting into college would be the hurdle; during my senior year, I learned the hard way that the race doesn’t end there.
Here’s my situation: I applied to a wide range of reaches, targets, academic and financial safeties; I was accepted to nine, waitlisted at four, and flat-out rejected from three. Just based on my results, I had narrowed my choices down to three dream schools, so I sat back and waited for the financial aid award letters to arrive. All of the officers my parents had talked to said that a middle-class family with our Estimated Family Contribution probably wouldn’t receive that much, but with a combination of federal grants or loans and me making some money on my own, it would be tolerable.
When I finally received those letters, I was shocked at the dollar signs and digits staring back at me. At each of the three, I was given a negligible amount in either work-study or academic stipend, and a series of unsubsidized loans (essentially, nothing that would really help my family pay for my education). There was no way my family could come up with enough money to cover $60,000 worth of full expenses each year. I looked at it as nothing more than a mistake, and shoved the letters into a folder, hoping the matter would work itself out later.
But later became soon, and I realized I had to take some kind of action. I did everything I could to remediate the situation, because I felt I deserved that big-name-school education. I contacted financial aid officers at each respective college (perhaps pestered is more appropriate) to see if there was any way they could reconsider my award. I wrote a series of appeals letters, explaining exactly what we could and could not afford and specifically why this was the case, offering to send them as much information and documentation as was necessary to verify the claims I was making. The long and short of it was thus: attending either of the schools would give my family over a hundred thousand dollars worth of debt after four years, and I could not ask my near-retirement-aged parents to take money from their life savings to fund my education, forcing them to sacrifice a livelihood which already was being made difficult by the high tax rate and cost of living that plague New York City residents.
Their response? Sorry, but we can’t give you anything. Times three.
Translation? Well, if you can’t pay, then we’ll take a wealthy private school kid from off the wait list and offer him your spot, because he can. And no, we aren’t sorry.
First, I cried. Then, I screamed bloody murder and punched the wall a few times and proceeded to cry some more. I felt the Stuyvesant dream slowly slipping through my fingers. I did everything that I was supposed to do and fought tooth and nail with tens of thousands of other kids to earn that spot at Desirable University, and I felt like it was all for naught. To think that they were willing to turn me away so easily in favor of a less diligent kid whose rich daddy could buy the school a new wing of the library (maybe even a whole new library) made me want to scream, “there’s no such thing as meritocracy!” I wasn’t sure with whom I was more enraged – Stuyvesant for setting me up with a dream that would be crushed, or the Desirable University-types who did the crushing.
What’s ironic is how they so blatantly deceive people. I remember attending a fly-in at one of the three colleges I was accepted to, where the director of financial aid said something along the lines of “We have hundreds of billions of dollars in our endowment, which is comparable to huge institutions, but we have a small class size – that means that if money is an issue, don’t worry about it because we can work it out for you.” Funny how not five months later, someone from that same office apologized for not being able to work out a deal that would make it possible for me to attend. The truth is, these universities are businesses that want to maintain their sizeable funds as well as their reputation of having a diverse student body, so most of the class is comprised of students from opposite sides of the financial spectrum. And at a time of huge economic downturn where the interest on federal loans to pay for college surpasses the rate on mortgages and the student debt loan crisis is the new housing bubble, it’s incredibly hard for students whose families are stuck in the middle to decide how much is too much, and whether the investment is worthwhile.
It didn’t help for me that my peers were all committing to their dream schools. I began to wonder, with jealousy and a bit of disdain, if they came from extremely low-income families and were being offered free or highly subsidized rides, or if they were a whole lot wealthier than I thought they were. As I spoke to more of my peers, though, I was hearing the same thing: “Oh, I’ll have to take out a bunch of loans, but the education from [Desirable University] is so worth it.” But the financial aid officers and college counselors told me, “You don’t want to graduate with that much debt; it isn’t worth it regardless of the school.” When you hear contradictory things like that, you can’t help but be conflicted.
For me, it was a catch-22 either way – I could either take on the debt for a brand-name school and pray to the deities of the job market that I’d get a job lucrative enough to pay it off (which is what many of my peers are doing, I learned), or I could graduate debt-free from a less prestigious school and hope that I’d get hired despite my not-nearly-as-impressive-but-decent undergraduate credentials. Then, even though my major is currently Undecided, I started throwing graduate school into the mix, which adds a whole new layer of complexity. All of it was way too much for me to wrap my seventeen-year-old mind around as I oscillated back and forth; it was like a war in my mind that I couldn’t win.
But eventually, after extensively weighing the pros and cons, I decided to kiss my idealistic view of Desirable University goodbye. I opted for a public university that would provide me with an extensive education for half the price tag (and allow me to graduate without a small suburban house’s worth of debt).
At first, I regretted my decision. Whenever anybody brought up the subject of college, I would get oddly quiet and there would be an awkward pause after which I’d mutter something about not wanting to talk about it. It was painful for me to have to answer questions about which Desirable University I would be going to with the name of my Chosen College. The thing that I hated the most though, were the trite comments like, “You’ll be fine wherever you go,” or “Hey, that’s a great school,” which were intended to make me feel better but only made me feel worse. I couldn’t let go of the could-have-been that was so obtainable yet unobtainable.
I’ll admit that I still have to convince myself every day that it is going to be okay. I wake up each morning and tell myself that Desirable University is severely missing out (while composing passive-aggressive messages to the financial aid officers in my head, of course), and that in the long run, everything I have done will eventually pay off. Judging by the fact that I refuse to rule out the possibility of transferring to Desirable University after a year or two, I’m still dealing with the problem of actually believing it.
But I also vow to myself every day that I’ll make it work. So I may be going to school with Strong Island lax bros and girls who are convinced that Queens is not part of New York City, but at least I know that there are some bright kids who, like me, are there because of financial reasons. I may not have access to a super-intensive interdisciplinary program my freshman year, but I’ll certainly get special treatment and make useful connections as a Presidential Scholar. It may sound a bit cliché, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and while I may not be sure of where it is exactly that I’m going to be in four years, I’ll find my own way there.
The long and short of it is that no, you don’t always get what you want – I didn’t, and believe me, it nags me on the inside every day. But with all the uncertainty in my future, it’s nice to know that my finances won’t be the thing that screws me over. So in ten years when Rich Boy’s father drops dead (from a heart attack after seeing the 8-figure digits owed to Desirable University for undergraduate and graduate studies) and leaves him penniless with tons of loans to repay, I’ll be living in a house that’s worth his debt, making money from the job that I got because I was the top of my class as an undergraduate and that helped me get into a top-notch graduate school. And I’ll be saving up so that my child can go to the Desirable University of his or her dreams.