Paying $184,000 more for a college near the beach???


During the coronavirus crisis, I am answering a question every weekend day posed by parents on my newsletter list.

You’ll find the latest Q&A below. I hope you can benefit from it! Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Question from an Indiana mom:

Our senior has been accepted to University of California, San Diego, which is her top choice as an out-of-state public university.

She also got into her back-up, in-state school. The in-state school is Indiana University with a direct admit to Hutton Honors College, Kelley School of Business and a Provost Scholarship of $8,000 per year.

We do not qualify for financial aid and would have to take out student loans to complete her undergraduate degree at UCSD. 

Currently she has enough funds in a 529 plan to pay for in-state tuition with funds leftover for graduate school. Should we try to appeal for reduced tuition from UCSD?

Currently her major is psychology with the thought of becoming a psychologist. She is longing to get out of the Midwest and live near the ocean

My answer:

As far as I’m concerned, the answer to this question is simple:

Attend Indiana University!!

UCSD’s cost of attendance for non-residents is $61,295 for the current year. (UCSD’s nonresident price for the 2020-2021 school year is not available yet.)

This family could end up paying $250,000 for a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCSD.

Now let’s contrast that with what this household would pay for Indiana University in Bloomington. Subtracting the $8,000 annual scholarship from the sticker price of $24,417 for the 2020-2021 would bring the four-year tab to roughly $66,000.

My own question is this:

Is attending college in sunny San Diego (where I’ve been a resident for nearly 30 years) really worth paying $184,000 more for a bachelor’s degree?

The fact that I even have to ask that question illustrates how emotional the college selection process is. And  how irrational it can be.

I think the choice in this instance is a clear one.

By choosing Indiana U., the parents can save a huge amount of money that can be used, if they wish, to help their child with graduate school.

If this teenager hopes to become a psychologist, she will need graduate school.

Saying no to a dream school

I’d urge anyone who is considering over paying for their child’s dream school to read this success story of parents who refused to spend the money.

The parents vetoed their daughter’s desire to attend Northwestern at full cost (they didn’t qualify for financial aid) and instead the urged her daughter to attend University of Pittsburgh where she received a large merit scholarship.

What’s cool about this story is that the dad gave me updates while the daughter was thriving at Pitt.

She ultimately had lots of graduate school choices. She is currently at Oxford University and the money the parent saved for the bachelor’s degree is being used for her graduate studies.

Northwestern vs University of Pittsburgh

Squeezing more money from UCSD?

Asking UCSD for a price break won’t work.  Unlike plenty of college, UCSD doesn’t have to offer a price break to an affluent student whether they live in California or not.

Only 1% of freshmen at UCSD receive a merit scholarship.

The dearth of merit scholarships is typical of the University of California campuses.

Admirably, the UCs want to devote their aid to students who need it. That is actually a rare position among the nation’s public universities.

Over the years, merit scholarships have been exploding at state universities across the nation. And I should add, this is happening at the expense of students who actually need financial help.

You can learn all about this phenomenon by reading this excellent report by Stephen Burd, a phenomenal higher-ed journalist and researcher, who is at the New American Foundation.

New America and state universities, Stephen Burd

Why are the UCs so expensive for nonresidents?

UCSD, UC Berkeley and UCLA are always among the nation’s most expensive state universities for outsiders because these schools can attract nonresidents due to their brand name. Enough high-income families are willing to pay a high price for a brand name.

The UCs recruit affluent nonresidents to come to their campuses so they can charge them extremely high tuition to underwrite their operations.

Does where you attend college matter?

By the way, there is absolutely no reason to think that UCSD will be a better school than Indiana University!!

Research strongly suggests that what’s most important is not where you go to college, but whether you make the most of your time at wherever you land.

Here’s a blog post I wrote about this phenomenon

Final advice

Save your money and come out to San Diego for a vacation. We can meet up when you are here and you could tell me how it turned out!

Learn more:

Especially during this scary time, it is absolutely crucial that you become a smart consumer as you weight your college choices. You can do that and ultimately save tens of thousands of dollars or more by enrolling in my online course, the College Cost Lab.

You can learn more here.

Let's Connect

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  1. I have to respectfully disagree that UCSD is a commuter school. I know a couple of relatives and family friends who attended and they all lived on or near campus all four years at UCSD. I believe, from what I’ve heard, that commuter campuses are where most students live off campus (such as at home with mom and dad) and come to campus just for classes.

  2. Go to IU! I am a proud alumni and was in one of their honors dorm floors many years ago. Met lots of smart people who are doing amazing things now. Since then I’ve lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Texas, and now California. Where you go to school does not dictate where you will live as an adult, especially if you attend grad school somewhere completely different.

    I did take a few Psych classes at IU, one disadvantage is that at a state school, this tends to be a popular major with lots of students with larger class sizes. It will be important for her to make sure she takes advantage of research/independent studies opportunities so she can personalize her academic experience. The honors experience will help a lot there.

    Good luck!

    1. One thing I’ve observed and it is just anecdotal…a lot of the people I know who’ve gone far away to school still live in the area they grew up in and all the people who stayed closed by for college, live on the East Coast or in another country. Of course I live in a large metropolitan area…

  3. As both college (ivy) professor and college age parent – IU would be my “rational” choice – that said the decision criteria is the trade off between your child’s perceived fit and economic realities and sensibilities. If these two are divergent – I think some of the other parents’ suggestions may close that gap eg semester program in CA – good luck!!

  4. I’m 100% in agreement with Lynn on the issue about dream schools, cost and student debt. Yes, we want our kids to be able to attend good schools that they feel are a fit for them and there can be many schools on that list. But we must also consider the financial fit. As parents, we should not get ourselves into debt and compromise our financial well being to help pay for the high cost of attendance at schools. We also don’t want to encourage our students to take on astronomical debt that will impact their lifestyle if and after they graduate.

    Often, students make choices based on too much emotion then come to regret it and make a change later. I work in higher education at a community college in a student Services capacity and I work with many students each year who leave the dream school after the first year…usually due to finances or realizing the grass was not as green on the other side as they expected.

    My son is finishing his Freshman year and had a few dream schools in mind. He was admitted into each but only one gave him a decent aid package where the loan amount was not too high. The University he chose is was not one near the top of his until he visited the campus. It’s not in a glamorous location but he kept an open mind about it. He also received a very generous scholarship and aid package. He’s happy with his choice and realizes that he can live in his dream location after he graduates college.

    When the admission process is done…I’m a fan of going with the school that has the best overall fit…academically, culturally and financially.

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      Thanks Karin! Your advice is spot on! Loving parents should not let teenagers make emotional and recklessly expensive decisions about college.

      Lynn O

  5. I’m very familiar with both IU and UCSD. I live in Indiana and attended UCLA (long ago) and lived in California. The only reason it’s worth going to a UC is if the cost is comparable (I had an athletic scholarship). It’s very difficult to say no to a dream school, but Lynn is absolutely right. I have two points to add.

    If she got into the Honors College, that’s a big deal and a major advantage for her potential experience. If she’s interested in business, you can’t do better than Kelley. If she’s interested in being a Psychologist, then a PhD will be virtually mandatory. And the cost of a masters and then a PhD (4 – 5 more years) is crazy. If that’s to be a possibility, she’ll need to keep the cost of undergrad as low as possible. You should look at the cost of becoming a Psychologist now and factor that possibility into the equation. It doesn’t matter in the least where you go to college to a grad school as long as the experience is rigorous and she does well. There’s no advantage to either school from a grad school perspective, but the Honors College would be viewed favorably.

    From what you’ve said, the experience will be as good or better at IU for a substantially lower cost. As a Hoosier, I understand IU doesn’t have any cache (except on the East Coast where it’s inexplicable a hot school), but getting a great education that sets her up for more options in the future is really the key, isn’t it?

  6. Forgive me in advance if I sound a bit strident or rude as that is not my intention.

    There is no actual choice here; the decision is right in front of you. Go to Indiana. IU is a good school; I understand the campus is beautiful. Admission to the Honors College is a big plus and attests to your daughter’s academic abilities.

    Graduate school is a must if your daughter’s goal is to practice as a psychologist or clinical social worker. By attending IU money will remain for graduate studies. Your daughter may wind up with a Master’s degree while remaining debt free, or nearly so. Her finances will likely be such that, should she choose to continue toward a PhD, money will not stand in the way of her ambitions.

    To be brutally frank, “the beach” should not even come into the conversation. Sure, we all want our kids to be happy while at college, but is “the beach” really a consideration here? Please do not be offended, but if the answer is yes I suggest you and your daughter need to reappraise your priorities. Perhaps a gap year working in the “real world” will cause your daughter to see that college is first and foremost about education. If a school is a great fit and the finances work AND it happens to be near “the beach,” all well and good. But quality education and ongoing educational opportunities must be paramount.

    If your daughter must get out of the Midwest, there are many schools out there which will provide her with a great education at a reasonable price. Lynn mentioned the story of my daughter. She attended the University of Pittsburgh, earned two undergraduate degrees including one form the Honors College and was ultimately admitted to Oxford for graduate study. To my knowledge, Pitt is competitively priced. By the way, Pittsburgh is a great town! I’m sure Lynn could list additional schools where pricing is reasonable by today’s standards and financial aid and/or grants are available.

    Again, not to be rude but remember, you are not buying a time share on the beach! By paying for college you are investing in your daughter’s future. She is obviously a good student. Make sure to the extent possible that she has the financial ability to continue her studies beyond her Bachelor’s degree. I promise you, she will thank you about four years from now when she is admitted to a great school for graduate study … and money is no impediment to her attending same.

    Good Luck!

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      Thanks Mike for weighing in on this family’s decision. I will always be grateful that you shared your daughter’s story from the trauma of her not getting to attend her dream school, to her success at Pitt and her transition to grad school overseas!


      1. Hi Lynn: Our family will always be grateful to you for the common sense advice you provided on this website. It was on point and invaluable.


    2. If your student is serious about attending a public university in California they can attend a California community college and establish residency. Or, they can move to California and work full time and establish residency.

      A better value might be for your student to apply to a private California university. Private schools often offer grants for honors level students.

      I’d also add the UCSD is a commuter school. It is quiet on campus during weekends.

  7. Dear Indiana Mom,

    Lynn helped me out two years ago with a similar situation-my son got into UCLA and St. Olaf college/private. He did not get any scholarships from UCLA, but did get a scholarship from St. Olaf Minnesota. How much I wanted him to attend UCLA his top choice. There are also many hidden fees from the UC colleges-dorm size was a closet with 3 to a room and no air conditioning. As a California Mom, it was hard to send him to the Mid-west, but he has enjoyed his college experience and plans to attend UCLA for his Masters. Best wishes and good luck.

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      Thanks so much for weighing in on this post and sharing your experience! I remember you reaching out with the St. Olaf vs. UCLA question and I am glad for the update!


  8. I think the family could easily sweeten the deal: part of the amount saved will be used to fund a Summer, Fall, or Winter beach vacation every year for this student AND one study abroad semester (perhaps even adding a summer term) in locations with good weather and the beach. They’d still come out $160,000 ahead or so!!!

    (In addition, truly, UCSD is a great school, but it’s much better for grad school).

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  9. Not only do I agree with the response above, but also consider that Indiana has a much more majestic campus filled with traditional school spirit. UCSD, while being an excellent school, does not have the same history or culture. UCSD does not have a college town or football stadium to anchor it. Again, its a great school but very different culturally.

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