I had thought (wished, prayed, hoped) that after high school I would never again have to fill out another Common App, the manifold document upon which my higher education once rested.
Transcripts, tax returns, the unending sense of inadequacy—these were things of the past, or so I then believed. I applied to ten schools, based almost exclusively on their binding merit of having a promisingly high acceptance rate. Have I mentioned I had low self-esteem? I got into nine of them.
A year and a half later, stuck in a pre-calc math class that smacked too closely of high school, the festering sore left by college applications began to scab over, and, like any bored student, I began to pick at it.
“I have nothing to lose by applying,” I told myself, as I began the process again. This time I paid little to no attention to acceptance rates or location, determined I would go to the best writing school possible, rejection be damned. My grades had gone up, and so had my reach, so when I got into five of the seven schools I applied to, I was thrilled. And then I got my tuition statements.
Along with my self-esteem (a kinder name for ego), my parent’s income had also risen somewhat since 2008. While the first time around I had been eligible for small scholarships and grants, this time I had no such luck. FAFSA, the God of all loan-programs and the bane of many a student’s existence, had caught on to the small fiscal upsurge and was not to be fooled by my wistful appeals.
My parents had generously stated that they would fund whatever educational institution I chose to attend to the best of their ability and the rest could be taken out in student loans. But it made me think—was $60,0000 a year truly worth it for undergraduate education?
Was getting out of college with a small fortune in student loans really the best thing to do for my future, given that graduate school was an imminent possibility?
I couldn’t tell, so a resolution made in December to transfer schools ended up taking me until June to finally decide. On the one hand, there was NYU and Emerson: East Coast prestige, an “in” into publishing Mecca, and teachers whose names I recognized from book covers and magazines. On the other, UC Berkeley, too close to home, too known, too cheap. Was I taking the easy way out if I went there? Or was a $25,000 difference in tuition a reasonable thing to consider?
I asked advice from anyone and everyone I could sucker into talking to me about it in the months that followed. My more artistic, yogi friends (you guessed it, the vast majority) invariably told me to follow my heart and not think about money. Everyone else told me to go to the cheaper UC. “But I’m not pragmatic” I wailed to my parents, who remained stoically neutral amidst my emotional tirade.
Finally, I surprised everyone, (myself included,) by choosing Berkeley. My rationale was that an internship would give me the same sort of experience as a specialized school, and that saving now would enable me to enter the graduate program of my choice in later years. And, really, UC Berkeley is still a prestigious university—public, yes, but nothing to sneeze at.
All in all, this process has given me little insight into what exactly is best for my future, but it has made me consider my education in a new and fundamentally different way.
Where I once believed unquestioningly in the power of following my heart, now I am prone to ponder, if where my heart leads me is 10 years of student loans, is it really to be trusted and followed? If an academically equal option presents itself, shouldn’t I, and all students pick it, given the state of our crippled economy?
Your guess is as good as mine, but I know one thing for certain: if what my heart wants is to be a writer (and I’m almost certain it does) then student loans and class sizes won’t stand between me and my dream. I’ve followed it this far, but it’s time for my head to take over. At least for the next couple years.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger