Secrets of a C.E.O.: Why I Chose In-State College

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Joi Gordon People have a lot of opinions about money. In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, Joi Gordon, C.E.O. for the national nonprofit organization Dress for Success Wordwide, shares how she earned a law degree and, later, landed a high-profile dream job—all with a state school education (and no student loan debt).

For my Caribbean family, college was the golden ticket. As the first generation to attend college in the United States, I knew that my family wasn’t too familiar with the ins and outs of the application process. But my parents, ever the hardworking and sacrificing types, promised to pay out-of-pocket for my first year of school, so I needed to find a place that we could all afford—a five-star education on a budget.

A school like Harvard or Yale just wasn’t a reasonable option. I knew the Ivies were out there, but I didn’t dare apply because their price tags were more than my parents could afford. And, quite frankly, those schools just weren’t on my radar at the time.

Living in the Midwest, you hear a lot about the big state colleges. I don’t think people outside the Midwest and the South can fully appreciate how much loyalty and excitement high school students feel when choosing to attend their state university. In Oklahoma, you either want to be a Sooner (University of Oklahoma) or a Cowboy (Oklahoma State University). It isn’t if you will go to college, but which college you will choose. For me, it was the University of Oklahoma all the way. Though the college campus was big, it still felt very welcoming. And the location was perfect: close to home, but still a few hours away.

When I was growing up, my mom worked very hard. My parents were divorced and she had custody of me, but my dad was definitely in the picture: He was there for me both emotionally and financially. For a time, we all lived in New York City and I saw my dad every weekend. Then, my mother and I moved to Oklahoma where the cost of living was cheaper and my mom could work “smarter, not harder,” she said. (These days, they call that work-life balance.)

“When I graduated, I worked in a district attorney’s office where my colleagues who had attended Yale Law School and Georgetown Law were $100,000 in debt from getting their law degrees.”

RELATED: I Want to Open an Account to Save for College

My way of repaying my parents, so that their work wasn’t in vain, was to do well in school and achieve success. With them covering my freshman-year college tuition, I applied to become a resident adviser so my housing costs would be free. I majored in journalism, which, for me, was an opportunity to speak the truth and be a voice for those who are silenced. Through being an RA and other leadership positions I sought out on campus, my college pointed me toward scholarships, which paid for my next three years of tuition.

  • Julie G

    This is a brilliant example of how TO do it – how to get an education, how to pay for it, how to choose a career that suits your personality and skills. Kudos for an example that people can actually achieve.

  • Marie

    While I definitely agree that state schools offer great values at a fraction of the cost of private schools, I always wish people made it more clear that going in-state doesn’t necessarily mean you will graduate debt-free. Of course, some people do, as Joi explained (and I do like her story), and there are many, many ways to cut costs.

    But the line about “It’s crazy how much some of the colleges are asking for tuition nowadays” is very true. Tuition and fees increased 44% at my in-state university in the four years I attended. Doesn’t that sound unbelievable? I just ran the official numbers three times to make sure. Even if you have saved for college, it’s a big challenge to keep up with increases like that.

  • SM

    Interesting post! I’m both a product of and professor at a state university and there’s no question that there are many wonderful education options out there. But I hear (and feel) the pain of rising tuition costs. We’ve divested in public education in this country for decades – most state universities get less than 10% of their budgets from their states. The money has to come from somewhere. If we as a society aren’t willing to pony up, the can gets kicked to the future generations through tuition hikes.

  • Ivy Girl

    I’d just like to point out that while state schools can be great options, writing off Ivy Leagues because they’re “too expensive” could be shortsighted. Ivy’s (and other really prestigious schools like Stanford) have huge endowments, which means that they’re able to cover all your financial need. I went to one and, even though my family is well off, the school paid for over half my tuition and expenses. If you qualify for Pell grants then you can attend these schools at no cost. Just another perspective.

    • Yale grad

      Agree on IvyGirl’s point – the same happened in my situation. I come from a lower middle class family and Yale undergrad paid 90% of my tuition with grants compared with Ohio State, which was only going to pay for 20% with merit scholarships. And while I wouldn’t say the actual content of the classes was any better or worse than if I had gone to my state school – i had taken classes at Ohio State while in high school and thought they were excellent – many of the my classmates at Yale were leagues above in terms of their ambition and life experiences. I was able to get a much coveted job in finance at a firm that I’m not sure would have given me a second look if I had had the same degree from a state school – and if my boss-to-be wasn’t an alum from the same school. At a certain tier of private school I agree that it’s better to go the state school route, but like it or not, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT and a few others have fantastic financial aid and access to an unparalleled network. If you think you’ll qualify for the aid, it’s definitely worth a shot.

  • Rich Girl Business

    I know so many people going back to school to get a law degree. I feel like its their way of protecting themselves from going into the “real world”. Racking up tens of thousands of dollar in debt. I am glad you didn’t take that path and show people there are other ways to do it.

  • mara

    I felt identified with the first part of this story and I do hope I can also be as successful as the author as my career unfolds. I moved to the US from South America to pursue a college education in science. My parents offered me some financial help but I also had a large amount of tuition covered through academic and athletic scholarships. I also became an Resident Advisor my second year to cover more cost and graduate with zero debt.
    I went to a state school for my doctorate degree and I have been working in industry since I graduated.
    I couldn’t be happier about not having any student loans because it gives me options and peace of mind. I do hope to partially help my kids with college when I have them and hope they can find their own way to also contribute to the cost (loan-free). One develops a sense of pride in what is possible when the little efforts and sacrifices pay off in the long term :)

  • Navy Grad

    This article is very short sighted. The quality of the education may not be different, but the Ivy League Diplomas certainly open doors that wouldn’t be open else where. You don’t get an interview at McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, etc with a degree from a state school. Could you be wildly successful from a state school? No doubt about it. But discounting a degree from Harvard or Princeton sounds bitter and contrite. Also, the market for attorneys is terrible regardless of where you went to school, so you’re correct in choosing the cheaper education at this time.