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All of you college admissions aficionados are aware that the term “state school” has become a shameless synonym for “safety school.” America’s public universities are discussed with an eye roll at the lunch tables of elite high schoolers and parents have to push their high-achievers to apply so that they’ll have a safety school on the Common App. So why on Earth should you seriously consider attending your state school? In short, its wonderful in-state tuition coupled with its ability to give you the total college experience you want.

In-State Tuition

Now, this one should go without saying, but I think it merits some serious attention. In order to illustrate the miracle of in-state tuition, I’m going to share my own financial aid story:

When I was accepted to Barnard College in the spring of my senior year, I was beyond thrilled. I imagined what my next four years in Morningside Heights would be like – waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to rush partial-view Broadway tickets, scrounging the cash for pumpkin hot chocolate at Nussbaum & Wu, checking out a new museum every weekend. I immediately hopped onto Barnard bookstore’s webpage and bookmarked all the glorious merchandise I couldn’t wait to pick up at orientation. I joined the Class of 2018 Facebook group and started chatting with the lovely ladies I assumed would be my future classmates.

That is, until the next day, when my physical acceptance letter came in the mail: beautiful, glossy, and promising the best four years of my life among the glittering lights of New York. I quickly flipped through all the included forms and eventually came to my financial aid letter: Nothing. Yep – Barnard was asking me to go $120,000 into debt, or, the price of a straight-off-the-line Aston Martin, for all you car enthusiasts out there. I did a triple-take at the letter, and then I broke down because I knew there was no way I’d be enrolling in the fall. My parents had always been very clear about what we could afford when it came to college, and Barnard’s tuition was nowhere near that range.

Luckily, around a month later, I attended the University of Virginia’s Days on the Lawn and realized that it was my state school – the one I insisted I would never attend and toured twice without being impressed – that ended up stealing my heart. I’ll be attending a college I love in the fall and saving a ridiculous amount of money at the same time.

So what can we learn from my sob story? Colleges may harp about meeting 100% of demonstrated need in various mailings, but facts are facts and collegiate financial aid is downright cruel to those of us in the middle class. It just is. And it’s awful and it sucks a lot, but in many, many cases, it’s true. This brings me to the glorious resource that is your state school – you know, the one you’ve sworn up and down you wouldn’t attend in a million years. The one you toured begrudgingly sophomore year and the one you scoff at when you receive its promotional pamphlets. That one.

Believe me: in-state tuition is a gift from God, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and any other deity of your choice. Or the product of sheer dumb luck, if you prefer that view. According to the College Board, UVa‘s tuition and fees amount to $27,126/year while Barnard‘s total $63,212/year. So, assuming I didn’t qualify for financial aid (which, as stated earlier, I didn’t), my public education at UVa is going to cost easily less than half of a private education at Barnard. With the money my parents have saved, I’ll be fortunate enough to graduate debt-free and even get a year of grad school under my belt without taking out loans.

This leads me to one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received during the admissions process: when it comes to your undergraduate education, where you go doesn’t matter as much as what you do while you’re there. So, if you’re a brilliant student with grad school on the brain, graduating with as little undergraduate debt as possible will be more important than attending a wickedly expensive prestigious college in the long run.

And here’s the thing about attending a college you’re positive you can afford: you experience this unparalleled feeling of total security. By going to my state school, I’m able to let go of a whole lot of financial stress that I know would have eaten at me if I had attended a private college. I’ll never have to worry if I’ll be returning for a second, third, or fourth year at UVa because of a poor financial aid package. I’m confident that I’ll be a four-year Cavalier, which not only takes a huge weight off me, but off my parents as well. They’ll never have to slog through FAFSA paperwork ever again. They’ll never have to schedule last-minute meetings with their accountant to meet impending CSS deadlines or rush to finish their tax returns early. They’ve scrimped and sacrificed enough in order to save for my college education – now they can finally let go of the reins.

Now, the main concern surrounding state schools (which makes prospective students dismiss them with a shrug) is their level of prestige and how likely it is that their graduates will find employment. Well, according to The Atlantic, the best dollar-for-dollar investments in higher education occur not at Yale or Dartmouth, but at UVa and Georgia Tech. And The College of William & Mary, University of Washington, University of Texas at Dallas, New Mexico Tech, and the University of Michigan all crack the top ten. That’s right: seven out of the top ten investments in higher education come from state schools that offer in-state tuition. In fact, “For dollar-for-dollar investment, nothing beats going to the University of Virginia as an in-state student… a degree in business, or computer science, or engineering, or economics at UVA has a higher dollar-for-dollar return than any major at any other school in the country.” Staying in-state can seriously pay off in the long run, prospies. Don’t dismiss it without digging a little deeper.

Total College Experience

There seems to be a misconception among high-achieving high school students that attending a state school is beneath them. Not that they would ever say that out loud, but we all know how prevalent Ivy (and Ivy-equivalent) obsession is on websites like College Confidential and Tumblr. It seems that among prospies, only a private school will do, and any school whose name can be compressed into an acronym should be avoided like the plague.

But I’m here to let you all in on a little secret: there are state schools with drop-dead gorgeous campuses. There are state schools with wonderful, quirky traditions. There are state schools with wildly famous alumni. There are state schools with student bodies so wickedly smart that talking with its members makes your brain ache. Everything that today’s successful high school students worship about elite private colleges is absolutely present at state schools. Don’t believe me? Let’s draw a few comparisons.

Love the Tufts University tradition of slathering “the cannon” in paint? Check out UVa’s Beta Bridge or UMich’s tradition of “Painting the Rock.” Can’t get enough of the Harvard-Yale rivalry? Look into the UC Berkeley vs. Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill vs. Duke, and UVa vs.Virginia Tech hatefests. Think Brown University’s Naked Donut Run is the most hilarious shenanigan ever? UNC-Chapel Hill students have also been known to streak through the library, and UVa students have no qualms about streaking the Lawn. If Stanford’s Full Moon on the Quad is your idea of a good time, check out UMich’s tradition of kissing under the Engine Arch or William & Mary’s tradition of kissing on the Crim Dell Bridge. And secret societies are in no way restricted to the Ivy League – UVa, William & Mary, and Alabama have their fair share, just to name a few.

As for famous alumni, Tina Fey attended UVa; Jon Stewart graduated from William & Mary; John Cho attended UC Berkeley; Darren Criss, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger are all University of Michigan alumni; and more celebs attended UCLA than I can count. And those are just the names that I pulled off the top of my head. Just because Natalie Portman went to Harvard doesn’t mean that an Ivy League degree is a prerequisite for major success down the road.

Open your eyes (and cheesy as it sounds, your heart) to all your state school has to offer. Maybe it’s a drop-dead gorgeous new theatre complex or a super-successful soccer team with a dedicated fan club. Maybe it’s a great advising system, a beautiful little college town surrounding campus, or an honors college that offers all the perks you could ever as for. You might be surprised.

So here’s the final skinny: in-state tuition is your very best friend and elite private colleges in no way have a monopoly on the awesome aspects of the full college experience. Now, if your state schools aren’t very good or if you just detest them all, then I’m not telling you that you have to attend them. Ultimately, you need to go to a college that you’ll enjoy and that will serve as a springboard for your future. But if you have a shot for in-state tuition at schools like UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Michigan, UVa, or UNC Chapel Hill, take my advice and don’t waste your time or money pining over the US News Top 1o. Just take your acceptance letter and run.

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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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  1. Heidi on July 3, 2014

    I loved this! I totally agree–state schools are a huge bang for your buck. Sometimes out of state public schools are worth considering as well; I’m attending a state school six hours away because with scholarships and financial aid, it’s actually cheaper than my own home state school!

  2. Prathusha on July 3, 2014

    I live in Michigan and UMich is seriously my dream school<3

  3. Artei on September 6, 2015

    This is so true. I was considering going to NYU for a while and going $90k in debt, but ended up going to UNC in-state for $5k/yr. I have a friend who went to NYU’s business school and went into almost as much debt as me. We are now both in the same industry, in the same city, and making the same pay, just I can actually spend my money.

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