MIT or debt free?

Our elder helps a letter writer with a looming college decision.

Dear EWC

The deadline to decide what college I will attend in the fall is quickly approaching and I honestly have no idea what to do. I’m completely torn. I was accepted to some very good schools out of state (MIT, Northwestern, Vanderbilt), and at first glance I was very happy. However, they won’t give me enough money for me to be able to afford it. At each school, I would incur at least $100,000 in debt. And that’s just for my undergraduate degree. But everyone in my life keeps telling me I have to go, and that it doesn’t matter what the cost is, that it’ll be worth it in the end.

On the other hand, I have a decent in-state school that would essentially be paying me to attend their school. I would be able to have my own car and live in my own apartment. Also, in my in-state school, I would be able to continue pursuing my passion for music, possibly as a double major without having to worry about debt. My out of state options would sink me further into debt if I tried to add another major or even a minor, so it wouldn’t be an option. I’ll be fully transparent.

My boyfriend is attending my in-state school. But I don’t want that to factor into my decision. He’s been as supportive as he can be, but he doesn’t know what to tell me. And it’s been even harder to go online and see everyone saying that an education at MIT is worth all the money ever. I don’t know what would make me happy. The more I think about it, the more I realize that maybe being the top of the top won’t truly make me happy. And that maybe, just maybe, being in-state and not having any debt will give me a chance to breathe. I’m scared; and with the added peer pressure to go to an elite school, my decision is even harder. It’s really dumb to say, but I’m scared of the judgements of other people. I don’t want to feel like I’m throwing away all my potential and my future for choosing a more financially viable option. And I don’t want other people to think that I threw everything away to be with my boyfriend. I’m so lost and I just feel like I’m repeating myself now. But ultimately, I’m lost between going to a prestigious school that may not make me happy and will most certainly drown me in debt, or going in-state and abandoning the prestige and risking my reputation and potential later on so that I can live free of debt and with perhaps a chance to follow my passions in music.

Good-Listener replies

Wow! You do have the decision of the century to make. In a way, it’s a great place to be; on the other hand, it’s an important decision to make — but not life or death either way. To be honest, if there’s any way you can speak to a professional — a therapist or college advisor to discuss these issues with them — that would be best, but before that, I’ll try to throw in my two cents from my desk.

Of course the prestige of graduating from an MIT, Northwestern or Vanderbuilt, gives you a certain cachet when entering the work world, there’s no doubt. And, often people right off the bat will be impressed by where you went to school. After that, however, as time goes on, the “impressed” factor decreases and it’s more what you’ve done with your life since college.
I went to a prestigious university and even graduated with honors. No one cares — in fact, it didn’t mean that much once I entered the working world and had to make my own way. But still, it’s nice to have on the resume.

Happiness is priceless. People derive that from many sources, and sometimes it comes from pursuing their passions and having the freedom to do it. That’s a lesson few people get — so, of course, folks are telling you that going to the A list school is the way to go without giving thought to the details. Here’s an important lesson I learned years ago. People will say, “you, you, you”, when they really mean, “I, I, I”. In other words, they are putting their own beliefs and even misconceptions in place of what’s right for you. It’s only natural, but they are thinking of how they might feel given the opportunity to go to MIT, and what they think it might afford them. They could be right, they could be wrong.

If you go to the state school you will, as you say, have freedom that few young folks experience these days: no debt. In my day there was student debt but nothing even close to what exists today. I worked through college and received some financial aid from my dad’s place of business. Between that, and some money my folks could afford, I left college debt free and never looked back. It means, perhaps, you will have the freedom to be a little choosier with where and how you work. It’s also up to you, while in school, to get work experience and prepare yourself for life after graduation.

I don’t know what kind of career in music you would be pursuing but, again, you would have more options if you have a degree and no debt. And, if you do well, there is always the possibility of transferring to a more prestigious school after a year or two at state. That’s what I also did. Completed freshman year at one school, was not happy, took a semester off, took classes at a local college, worked and volunteered… and then transferred to my dream school that I actually got into! I’m being long winded to make the point that there are options, and nothing is written in stone. My feeling from what you’ve written is that you are leaning toward state, and if you feel that’s what will make you happy, then that may be your answer. It may provide you with a better life starting off, and it doesn’t mean the A school is out of the question if you feel that’s your best option later on.

You haven’t mentioned if your folks will help you out, but I’m assuming they are not wealthy and that they can’t simply fork over $100 grand. They will love you no matter what, and so will your friends. If not, they aren’t your friends. It’s your life, not theirs.

As far as your boyfriend is concerned, I would make this decision separate from him because you may go to school and, well, you guys could end up moving in other directions. I saw it happen more than not, to be honest. This has to be a decision about you and where you ultimately want to go and the best way to get there.

Think about these things, try to speak to a counselor if you can, and have a long talk with your parents if that’s appropriate. Ultimately you’ll make your way in life regardless of where you went to school. Your ambitions, interests, passions, and motivation will be the real guide. I honestly think you’ll succeed wherever you end up. Good luck!

Letter #: 457318
Category: School

One Comment

  1. It’s important to listen to other’s stories and experiences, weigh all your options, and in the end decide what’s best for you…

    I was in a similar situation…I chose to go to the “prestige” university thinking it would all be worth it in the end. Unfortunately, I feel my parents and I put more into it then what we got out of it. I mention my parents because they paid for my education. I did receive a small scholarship that would have paid for one full year at an in-state school, but since I chose to go to a private university it ended up only covering less than half of one year of school!

    I remember being in high school and looking forward to the college years and it’s hard to look beyond that. It’s very stressful when an inexperienced, young person has to make a big decision that will in one way or another affect the rest of his/her life. We can only make decisions based on the information and knowledge we have on hand at the given time.

    As a 32 year old with a mortgage, car loan, and another loan…I am striving to obtain the debt free life! It’s very important to me and I hope to achieve it in 2-3 years. Many people in my situation or around my age not only have the debt I have, but they have kids on top of that and student loans. Believe it or not, some people are okay with being in debt for the rest of their lives, as long as they can make their monthly payments. I am not one of those people. It’s important to know what kind of person you are and what would make you happy.

    I just wanted to give you some insight and I am sure no matter what decision you choose, it will be the right one in the end. You sound like a very smart person. Go with your gut feeling and even though it may be hard, try to also look beyond your years at college and try to figure out what kind of life you want to have. You’re going to be spending many more years living life after college then you actually do in college.

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