Full ride at a third-tier college or full pay at dream school?

by Grace

What is the right decision when an aspiring college student has the choice of a generous scholarship at a lower-ranked school or paying full freight at a top dream school?  Clearly there is no single right answer.

If the family cannot afford to pay without borrowing most of the costs or otherwise creating a burden that seriously threatens their financial health, the answer must simply be to go with the scholarship.

Sometimes it’s more complicated.
But if the question applies to the case where a family could afford to pay college costs with a manageable financial sacrifice, determining the right answer becomes more complicated.  I disagree with the sanctimonious stance of those who declare that if you decide NOT to sacrifice deeply to pay for the “best” (expensive) college experience, then it means that you must not value education sufficiently.  At the same time, I admire families who decide to forego a second car, vacations, and other niceties of life so their child can attend his dream school.  Going so far as to dipping into retirement savings is a bit questionable, but I can even see how that would make sense in some cases.  There is not one “right” school for a particular student, and there is not one “right” way to select a school.  Money is a big part of the decision for most of us.

Candice Childress is a high school senior blogging in the New York Times about her own dilemma in considering unfamiliar universities that may offer her a full-ride because she has qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist.  She has dreams of studying film in California, but she also recognizes the practicalities of taking advantage of a scholarship offer such as the ones hinted at in letters she received from the University of New Mexico and the University of Central Florida.

… If Orlando or Albuquerque wants to pony up the cash for me to flail my way through my general education courses, who am I to reject that out of hand?

I have to actively fight off my film fantasies and love of Hollywood while making my decision. There are schools I dream about here in the West, schools I imagine would be perfect for me, but as of yet there is nary a word from them, much less any guarantees.

On the other hand, I have what amounts to a pair of promises that bear a fair resemblance to full rides. I have never been to Orlando, and I can barely spell Albuquerque …

It’s not that I dislike anything about the University of New Mexico or the University of Central Florida — it’s just that I know absolutely nothing about them. I’m intrigued by both locales … If I want to be in Los Angeles, what will I have to sacrifice to stay?

Childress will have to decide if the benefit of saving thousands of dollars is more important than realizing her dream to attend school in Los Angeles.  It may be a difficult decision, but she has several months to ponder the question.

My family was in a similar situation several years ago, but with the added factor that our child did not have strong opinions about one or more dream schools that were perfect for him.  In the end, we decided to forego the free money and go with a more prestigious school that offered very little merit aid.  It was a good decision, but I’m not convinced it was the only “right” decision.  Although I believe his school’s sterling reputation, strong academic environment, and opportunities for peer influence have already made a difference, ultimately we will never know what other benefits might have come from another choice.

A “first-tier” school does not guarantee a “first-tier” life.

While there are certainly stories about how the tremendous financial sacrifice was worth every cent of the cost of a top-tier college, this CollegeConfidential thread relates the success stories of students who saved money by attending lower-ranked schools, often going on to graduate studies with no financial worries.  On comment in particular seems to sum up the experience of most students.

Your story probably accounts for the vast majority of the students who go to “third-tier” schools; a lot of kids seem to assume that the US News rankings are match up to real life (ie, people who go to first tier schools get first-tier lives, people who go to third tier schools get third tier lives of drudgery and boredom) and it’s important for them to know that this just ain’t so….

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One Comment to “Full ride at a third-tier college or full pay at dream school?”

  1. Agree that the major is an important factor, but many students change majors along the way.


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