As a 19-year-old applying to colleges, I wanted nothing more than to branch out and try something completely new, something far away from my hometown in upstate New York.
On my first visit to Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia, I knew I had found my dream school.
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It was late summer, and the spacious green lawns were spotted with college students having picnics, studying, playing music and tossing Frisbees—they seemed so happy and friendly!
Nestled in the suburbs, the school was a short commute away from the bustling city of Philadelphia, and I loved the idea of being so close to a major city after growing up in a relatively quiet town. As a bonus, there was a minimum three-hour buffer between said quiet hometown and the school of my dreams.
I wanted to become a nurse, and Villanova had a great nursing program. I also loved the social life. There was just something about it that made me feel like I belonged. After visiting Villanova, I didn’t visit any other schools—I had found my dream college.
So I submitted my application to Villanova, along with two in-state schools, at my parents’ insistence. (After all, they were going to foot the bill.) Any schools not within half-a-day’s driving distance were off the list. “Who is going to pay for your plane ticket to come home?” my dad asked. “Can you afford that on top of your education costs?” There he was again with that word: cost.
Months later I was elated to see the big envelope in the mailbox from my dream university and read the acceptance letter, but noticed that, for some reason, my parents weren't as happy as I was. While I was imagining lying on the beautiful green lawns at Villanova studying with new college friends, they were thinking of their wallets.
So Long, Dream School: Why My Parents Said No
I was extremely fortunate in that my parents had planned for my college education from the day I was born. My father, an engineer, and my mother, a social worker, worked hard to save a little money every month after I was born, and they also socked away any birthday or holiday money from relatives. Today, the internet makes it a lot easier for parents to look up resources like index funds or 529s, but my parents met with a financial adviser early on for guidance and set up mutual funds as well as CDs for me and my younger sister.
"A few years later, my mom disclosed that telling me no to my undergrad dream was one of the hardest things she had done as a mother."
At the same time, they pushed me to visit the guidance counselors’ office on a daily basis during my senior year to find every scholarship they had on file. I didn't qualify for financial aid, but after winning a few merit scholarships, I left for college with an extra couple thousand dollars to help pay for books and other school supplies.
My parents, it turned out, were set on my attending a state university for the four years of my undergrad education, and they were happy when I was accepted to the two universities in my home state. Both were good colleges with excellent nursing programs—at about half the price of Villanova. In their ideal world, I would go to school only a couple miles from our house so I could live at home and not pay for living expenses or a food plan on campus. I was strongly against this plan. I wanted to get away from my hometown and couldn’t imagine spending another four years living with my parents in the same town, surrounded by the same people.
I begged my parents to let me go to the private school; I had worked so hard to get in and felt like it was the perfect fit. I could see myself living, studying and making new friends at my dream school but couldn’t picture myself at either of the in-state schools. When I pictured college, I pictured something different—and a school close to home was not different.
What did cost really matter? I thought. Taking out a student loan didn't seem like a big issue to me ... a lot of my friends were doing it for much more expensive schools than mine. What was the big deal?
So my parents sat me down for an honest conversation. They shared how they had started saving since I was born, and that the money would all be gone by mid-sophomore year at a private school. They explained that if I stayed in a state school, I would come out with no student loans and could pursue anything I wanted after that, debt-free. My dad, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and spent years paying off graduate school loans, emphasized that where you go to graduate school matters more than your undergrad, and that I would need to plan ahead for the potential expense of graduate school, should I choose to go. They were acutely aware of what a financial burden a student loan could turn out be.
I was furious that I had worked so hard in high school only to be unable to afford the school of my dreams. I was heartbroken. And, a few years later, my mom disclosed that telling me no to my undergrad dream was one of the hardest things she had done as a mother.
We ended up compromising: I went to the State University at Buffalo four hours away from home rather than the school next door, so I got some distance along with my savings. I wasn’t truly excited about it until I got my roommate assignment; the one girl I had roomed with at orientation turned out to be my roommate and in the nursing program with me. We quickly became friends and are still good friends to this day. Two months into college, I was truly happy to be where I was. This was the college experience I had dreamed of: making new friends, exploring new places (Niagara Falls was a short drive away!), sitting in big lecture halls and a fresh start ... despite not being at the private school.
Pursuing My Ph.D.: Where I Am Now
It has been almost nine years since I made the decision to go to an in-state school. My undergraduate experience was incredible: I made friends for a lifetime, had opportunities for research, got a great education and had a lot of fun. After four years in undergrad, I was accepted at my top choice school, the University of Pennsylvania, for a Ph.D. in nursing—something I would not have achieved if it wasn’t for my experience in undergrad.
Even though the Ph.D. program is at an Ivy League school with extremely high tuition, I am fully funded. Like most Ph.D. students, I receive financial support from the university and external grant funding that pays tuition and provides a stipend, health insurance and travel expenses for conferences.
When I am finally finished with my higher education, I will walk away with a Bachelors in Nursing, Masters degrees in Nursing and Bioethics, and a Ph.D. in Nursing. I hadn't originally intended to get a Ph.D. (you can get your nursing certification in undergrad), but fell in love with research in college and decided to pursue the degree that would let me keep researching. Now, instead of working clinically, I'll be focusing on research—whether in academia, for the government or in industry—for my career.
Three of my degrees will be from the University of Pennsylvania, and I will have accrued no debt or student loans. I've been able to live in two amazing cities (finally got my chance to live in Philly!), attend two highly ranked universities, take vacations with friends, go out to dinners and happy hours, and buy a new car. My stipend has forced me to track my expenses and keep to a monthly budget, so I've been contributing a couple hundred dollars to a savings account each month, have a CD and recently opened a Roth IRA.
I’ve seen friends stop pursuing higher education so they could start paying off student loan debt, and others face 30 or more years of paying off student loans. One of my best friends graduated a year ago with a degree in dentistry and over $200,000 in unsubsidized loans; he dedicates the majority of his paycheck toward paying off his student loans to try and counter the high-interest additions onto his principle every month.
In an especially difficult time to find jobs and an unsteady economy, I am grateful that I will be leaving school owing nothing to lenders. I received a wonderful education at the University at Buffalo and know the research experiences I had there are what got me accepted into top-ranked Ph.D. programs. I believe everything works out for a reason, and I have no regrets. While it was difficult at the time to let it go, my financial limitations in college forced me to look for different opportunities, which turned out to be even better than my dream.
I am grateful to my parents for their financial planning and guidance—and for not saying “I told you so” ... at least not yet.
Christina Slota is an RN currently completing her Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the effects of chronic stress on immune health. She hopes her work will help family caregivers cope with the stressors they face in their role and improve their health outcomes.