Picking a College 101

Jen Miller

Tess Vigeland: Many families across the country had to make a tough decision this college acceptance season.
They had to tell their kids that they just couldn't afford their first-choice school. Maybe not even their second-choice.

Commentator Jen Miller has some advice for dealing with that dilemma.

Jen Miller: Pick the cheap school.

I had my heart set on Boston University. I was going to study marine biology, then move to Australia to study the coral of the Great Barrier Reef. I saw this as my only path to success and happiness.

That same year, my parents were divorcing. There was no money for BU unless the school offered scholarships or grants. And they didn't.

The University of Tampa, however, did. My parents told me I had no choice: I was Florida-bound.

I was incensed with all the rage a 17-year-old can muster. My parents hated me. The world hated me. I was doomed. I'd never be a successful, coral-studying, Australia-living marine biologist because my parents decided to get divorced instead of letting me go to my dream school.

Did I mention I was 17?

Well, guess what? The world didn't collapse. The sky did not fall. My life, of course, was not ruined. I picked another major, and graduated with a budding writing career. Plus, I had no guillotine of massive student loans hovering over my neck.

So I could take a risk. I pursued a career as a freelance journalist and author. Yes, it was my passion, but it's so much easier to follow your passion when you don't have the equivalent of a mortgage payment for a monthly student loan.

My parents forcing me to go to the cheaper school was the best thing they could have done. Today, I still see so many of my peers in their 30s struggle to get out from under the financial obligations of expensive, old degrees.

If there's no way you can afford $50,000 a year in tuition and fees without jeopardizing your retirement or setting your child up for a life of repayment, there is only one thing you need to know: Pick the cheaper school, even if that means your 17-year-old rants and screams that his or her life is over.

I promise you, they'll thank you for it. Eventually.

Vigeland: Jen Miller is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia. You can find her on Twitter at jerseyshorejen. While you're at it -- follow me at radiotess.

About the author

Jen Miller is a freelance writer and proud denizen of the Garden State. She's the author of "Book a Week with Jen: 1 Year, 52 Books, and the Year of Starting a New Chapter."
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Here is an idea. Tell your child to join the military. By doing 2 or 3 years of service they qualify for the G.I. Bill, which in itself won't pay for a 50k a year school, however it does cover quite a bit. Your child gets the school he/she wants, with the debt of a second or third tier school. Not to mention they learn discipline, so all that hard earned money doesn't get wasted on thirsty Thursdays.

It's important to keep in mind that better-endowed schools can afford to offer better deals to students they really want to entice (and/or students who qualify for a lot of financial aid). My personal experience with this it that my daughter was choosing between a state school (out of state tuition) and a private 50K college. Comparing financial aid offers, we realized the state school would have cost her $14K each year, while the private college will only put her $3,500 in debt the first year. I think some parents who eliminate expensive colleges as options for their kids don't understand the power of a strong endowment.

Jen, thank you for writing this commentary. Education has always been considered a cornerstone for American Democracy, which is truer today than ever before. I have found that a couple of the best reasons since my college graduation in the 60s are a better understanding of the most important things in life and family happiness.

Regardless of what your major is, learning truly is a major part of living throughout our lives.

Today, Congress is deciding on the future of some of the most important issues in American history, and we all need to know as much as possible about vital issues such as the U.S. Constitution, social contract, distribution of wealth, healthcare, social security, welfare, public education, civil rights, our environment and many other issues that far too many American heroes have sacrificed their lives to provide us as their legacy.

Community college is also an excellent option.

@Jay - actually there have been many studies done over the years on that subject. A specific student who was admitted to both schools but went to the less selective school will do as well in life as if they had gone to the more selective. The theory is a student who did well enough in high school to get into the selective school has the drive and ability to do well anywhere. I've seen other studies that show a slight advantage in the top tier schools not due to the education one gets but the elbows one gets to rub and thus connections set up for careers.

I'm curious to know if any surveys or studies have tracked income earned by graduates of "top tier" vs. "second/third tier" colleges. In other words, do grads of BU ultimately earn more than their counterparts from Tampa?

Are they more likely to enjoy greater professional success?

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