As a high school senior, my college admissions experience was a bit more stressful than usual. Coming from a low-income family with a sibling already in college, I basically needed a full ride scholarship in order to attend any higher education institution. When admissions season rolled around, my college decision came down to two options: one of my dream schools with absolutely $0 financial aid, and one of my target schools with nearly a full ride. With the dark cloud of $60,000 in debt multiplied by 4 years looming over my head, I made the decision to commit to my target school. It took me a long time to come to this decision, with many tears shed and a few mini-existential crises in between, but it was for the best: for my family and my future.
Financial aid is one of the biggest reasons why low-income students stray away from bigger, private universities. Most financial aid packages are difficult to predict and rely on a number of factors, which is why it can be such a shock when you open your financial aid letter and you suddenly realize that your dream school is now out of reach. While I wish I could be the advocate for “reaching for your dreams!” and “not letting anything stop you from your goals, not even money!”, sometimes we need to be a little bit more realistic. If you are persistent about your college dreams and can accept the long-term consequences of taking out student loans (plus interest!), then you should commit to whatever you think is right. For some of us, our dreams have to be cut short by reality. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be attending one of my top choices, but after a while, I accepted that what’s done is done and I just had the make the most of my time at my university.
If your financial aid is the sole determining factor in your college decision and you can’t attend one of your top choices, one of the most important aspects to remember in this scenario is that it’s not the brand name of the school, but it’s what you make of your experience there. A student can barely graduate from Harvard with no extracurriculars activites, no leadership experience, and no internships or connections. A student can graduate from his or her local state school with professional experience, leadership roles, and networks throughout the country. You may have heard the phrase “it’s not the degree, but what you do with it”. Every single college campus has amazing students, faculty, and organizations; all you have to do is take advantage of these opportunities and put yourself out there.
Employers aren’t using the brand name of your university as the determining factor of your employment, but rather they’re looking for driven, hardworking people with passion and experience in the field. Instead of letting your fancy college degree be the headliner, you’ll need to make a name for yourself. Get out of your comfort zone: step up to leadership roles in your clubs and organizations, look for off-campus internships at innovative companies, go to networking events and expand your professional circle. Prove to yourself, and others, that you’re still a competitor. In addition, if you plan to go to graduate school, then the brand name of your undergraduate school may not even matter as much.
Your college decision isn’t such a huge end-of-the-world, determines-the-rest-of-your-life decision as the media and your parents may make it seem like it is. In fact, the “brand name” of your university doesn’t matter too much in the end. A college degree can only get you so far; next, you need to decide what you’ll do with your knowledge. Instead of letting this decision hinder and disappoint you about your college experience, use this as motivation. How much more can you accomplish?