3 Degrees, No Student Loans: How Skipping My Dream School Paid Off


college dream schoolAs 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.

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.

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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.

RELATED:  How I Did It: Applied for 100 College Scholarships

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?

  • E Veal

    I read the title of this article and thought “they did a story on me!” This is a great article.

  • LeAnn

    It is nice and all to have your parents pay for a degree – pleasant, really. It is important to learn at least by college the value of a practical financial decision. However, I think a deeper financial success story might have been one of the many students who make it through college debt-free on their own weekly work hours and savings, without educated parents with a pocketbook to guide them through.

  • lskn

    I went to a top-20 university for undergrad and then earned my two master’s and PhD at a state university where the tuition was unbelievably low and fellowships were available. I also worked my butt off in grad school so I would graduate with both experience and minimal loans (ended up being about $30K in low-interest subsidized loans that, yes, I will be paying off over a total of nearly 20 years–I’m halfway there–with a reasonable monthly payment that is under $200).
    I am SO glad that I chose the prestigious university for undergrad because it set me up for gaining entry to a very competitive state U for grad programs with limited spots for new students. The state U has the #1 program in my field in the country.
    I have heard the theory that this author’s father gave her that it’s more important where you go to grad school than undergrad. To some extent, I agree. But it can be hard to get into a great grad school if you go to a mediocre state school. Also, the climate at a more prestigious undergrad university better prepares you for the challenges of grad school.
    I’m glad Buffalo worked out for her, but I would be wary of telling everyone to follow her advice. If you (or your kids) have the opportunity to go to a top-notch elite university, GO! You’ll be amazed at the doors it opens for you. If the choice is between state and private schools of about equal rank (which I would say Villanova and Buffalo are), then go for the lower cost option.

  • Marie

    One of the most interesting parts of the whole article to me was the description of her field of research. Good for her – that is such an important topic.

  • Con

    While I see where one previous commenter is coming from saying’Oh it’s great that your parents saved for your education, but most people don’t get that, and it would be nice to see how someone without help could do it and have no debt’. I agree, but I think this story is a great example of what we can do for our future children. I had no help paying for college and have graduated with a mountain of loans and credit card debt. I had little to no education on how to handle money, and how to save, budget, knew nothing about compounding interest when I signed up for all my college loans. However, I have been teaching myself through Learnvest and other tools, and have made huge strides in improving my financial situation since graduating college. While this story may not be the norm, it is a great example about what we CAN do for our children. My parents never taught me about money, and how to use it/manage it wisely (probably because they never had any!). I hope to follow the example of the author’s parents, and actually teach my children how to make good financial decisions so that when they are in their mid-20′s they will be doing better than I am!

  • Lauren

    I went to Villanova. You didn’t miss anything. Lol.

  • https://twitter.com/DeadVenus_Blue haxan

    This should just be titled “My parents paid for college”. Not so helpful for the rest of us.

    • jay

      My point exactly! Just continue to brag to the people who struggle.

  • jay

    This story is another perfect life story. I would rather here a story of
    someone who have parents from another country and know that education
    is important however the child has to figure it out because the parents
    lacks education and money (kind of like my life!!). Another
    disappointing article from people who’s parents have money and strong a
    education background.

    • Christina Kochan

      See Con’s comment above. Making something from nothing is a story we hear all the time because that’s what people want to read about, but this is an important lesson, too!

    • CarrieSloan

      Hi Jay, Carrie from LearnVest here. Thanks for your comment. I wanted to point you to this story, which is, I think, exactly what you’re looking for. Yelena’s parents were foreign, and she paid for her own college while helping to support them. Here’s how she did it. http://www.learnvest.com/2013/09/how-i-did-it-i-applied-for-100-college-scholarships/

  • Pity Party, Much?

    The comments from disgruntled people who blast every article that doesn’t align perfectly with their financial situation are getting old. If the story doesn’t speak to you, move along and hope the next one does. If you can’t seem to find any articles on Learnvest that DO speak to you, find a new financial blog. Maybe a blog for people who think the world revolves around them and therefore everyone else’s financial story should as well?

    • Lisa Parsons

      Oh shut up.

  • Anthony Pierson

    I am in middle School and I already have a Full Ride to St. Mary’s University of Kansas because of my wonderful Aunt who was a nun for 30 years. I’d hate to seem spoiled, but no-one else would take the offer in my family, so I won’t let this opportunity go to waste. I am just happy that I won’t need a student loan, as I could just save while still in High School for the food and stuff.