Saying No to a Dream College: A Success Story

Should you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send your child to his or her dream college?

My answer to that dream college question has always been a resounding NO!

Some of the universities that U.S. News & World Report loves to gush over now cost $300,000 or higher. And that’s for a SINGLE bachelor’s degree.

If you’re really contemplating this sort of financial insanity, I want to share an inspiring story about a super-achieving young woman from Chicago.

Mallory originally had assumed that her parents would spend big bucks when she got accepted into her dream school – Northwestern University. It would have been a stretch, but her parents could have afforded to pay full price at Northwestern, but they balked at spending so much.

Pitt vs. Northwestern

It was an emotional conversation back in 2014 when mom and dad told Mallory that they were nixing the Northwestern move. They urged her to go instead to the University of Pittsburgh, which

University of Pittsburgh

offered her a full -tuition scholarship.

The parents told her that going to Pitt would free up the money they had saved if she wanted to attend graduate school. And there would also be plenty of money for extras such as internships and study-abroad opportunities.

I’d urge you to read the original blog post that I wrote years ago about the parents’ decision: Saying No to a Dream College

Golden Ticket Hogwash

Of course, one of the reasons why teenagers and their parents (and I’m primarily talking about high-income families here) fixate on elite universities, such as the Ivy League members, is because they really do believe that no acceptable alternatives exists.

Attending an elite college or university they believe is essential because only these institutions can pave the way to a life and career that is socially and financially rewarding.

In other words, people believe that going to a so-called golden ticket school is worth any price.

What the Research Really Says

Research, however,  has repeatedly shown that schools like Northwestern, Harvard and Stanford DO NOT possess a monopoly on successful post-graduate outcomes!

What affluent families don’t realize is that their kids already possess golden tickets. They don’t need to attend a highly ranked school to snag a golden ticket because they were born into families that have them. Not surprisingly then, what the research does show is that the students who actually do benefit financially from attending elite universities are low-income, first-generation and Hispanic and black students.

The other big fear that parents and students have is that if teenagers trot off to what they consider to be an inferior school, their graduate and professional school options will shrink.

What’s Next for Mallory

Mallory’s story, however,  illustrates this reality:   you don’t have to attend a college rankings darling like Northwestern to have a phenomenal college experience and ultimately get into an excellent graduate school.

Mallory, who was quite active in organizations and activities at Pitt,  majored in math and economics with a Spanish minor and maintained excellent grades. Accepted into Pitt’s honors college, she ended up with four academic advisors!

She ultimately decided to pursue a master’s degree in economics. Based on her stellar grades, her academic pursuits abroad in Barcelona and Havana and her undergraduate research that culminated in a senior thesis, she got into plenty of graduate programs.

Here are some of the graduate schools that accepted her:

  • Tufts University
  • Miami University (Ohio)
  • University of Oxford
  • London School of Economics

Oxford University Bound

Mallory received phenomenal awards from Tufts and Miami which would have made her master’s degree in economics at either of those schools almost free. She ultimately decided, however, that she wanted to attend Oxford.

Because her parents had so much money left after covering her undergrad costs, Mallory got to pick the grad school she wanted without money being a consideration. The parents will be paying a total of between $90,000 and $108,000 for the two-year Oxford program that includes tuition and room/board.


“Thanks to her full undergraduate scholarship at Pitt, my wife and I have the money in her college fund to pay for Oxford,” Mike, her father, said, “ In fact, unless the economy experiences radical changes, money will remain in her college fund at the end of her master’s studies.  She will ultimately graduate debt free with a master’s degree from a world class university.”

“She could have accepted offers from Tufts or Miami/Ohio (two superb schools) which would have cost little to nothing,” Mike continued. “ This speaks to the quality education she received at Pitt.  Had Mallory taken that route she would have realized a significant financial windfall upon graduation, as her college fund would have remained  intact.”

“Mallory will complete her education at the master’s level without incurring a dollar in student debt. This was our “plan” all along.  The seeds of that plan were planted by your advice and your blog.”

At this point, Mallory’s goal is to obtain a PhD in economics.  Whatever she chooses to do in the future, she will walk down that road debt free.

Looking Back on the Northwestern Veto

You might be curious what Mallory now thinks about her parents original decision to veto her Northwestern plans.

“She now readily acknowledges that we gave her good advice in urging her to accept the Pitt scholarship, She also laughs while making this admission,” Mike said.

“On a soberer note,” he added, “she has told us multiple “horror” stories about young people she knows who are carrying very burdensome undergrad student debt.  She understands that the Pitt scholarship, which she earned by way of hard work and long hours in high school, put her in the position she now finds herself in.”

Bottom Line

I will continue to urge parents not to overspend for a university with a fancy brand name.

As Mallory so beautifully illustrates, what a student does in college can be far more important than where he or she got a bachelor’s degree from.

I wrote a post years ago about landmark study from Gallup-Purdue that backs this up.

In the post, I wrote about my daughter’s collegiate experience at Juniata College, which led to some fantastic career opportunities including the launch back in 2017 of her own business –



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  1. This is a bad choice. An Oxford master in economics do not enable her to land a job in investment banking in US, because investment banks recruit students from undergraduates (analysts) or from MBA (Associates). There is someone who graduates with LSE undergraduate and graduate diploma, plus Columbia university master and previous internship experiences in IB, and the person is automatically rejected from applying for US investment banks just because she is doing master(yes, master diploma, in this scenario, is a substantial disadvantage). US investment banking pays 100000+ dollars each year. She can quickly pays off her debt. Of course she can
    As she majors in economics, I think her main goal is to earn money rather than do research (otherwise she will opt for eco PhD, not a master degree). It’s sad that her parents make a bad choice

  2. Pingback: Does Where You Go To College Matter? - TestBright

  3. I don’t know Mallory’s situation well enough to know the answer to this, but why did this “veto” happen after Mallory applied to all of these schools? Shouldn’t that have been something that was discussed prior to the applications in the first place

    1. Hello Patti:

      There was no “veto” of any graduate school. Mallory had the choice of attending any of the graduate schools to which she was admitted. Allow me to provide some additional explanation.

      Lynn’s earlier article(s) described the decision making process resulting in Mallory attending the University of Pittsburgh for undergraduate study on a full academic scholarship.

      Mallory turned down an offer of undergraduate admission to Northwestern which, if she had attended, would have required the exhaustion of the entirety of her college fund toward her bachelor’s degree tuition. Instead, she attended Pitt on full scholarship (my wife and I paid room, board and incidentals including study abroad costs). The scholarship resulted in Mallory graduating from Pitt debt free; her college fund remained virtually intact (the market did well during her undergraduate years.

      Mallory was admitted to multiple graduate schools as indicated in Lynn’s article. She was able to accept the offer from Oxford as a consequence of her college fund remaining available for graduate tuition. On receiving her M.Phil from Oxford, my daughter will remain free of student loan debt.

      We have Lynn to thank for pointing us in the right financial direction by way of her blog.

      1. I think Patti meant why did Mallory apply to Northwestern if it would be vetoed. I assume that she applied to see what scholarship offers would be received and after that was known, then the school was vetoed?

        1. Hello Fran:

          Here is a reprint of a reply I offered in one of Lynn’s earlier blog posts (in 2014) regarding the same question:

          We had no idea our daughter would receive any merit award at any school, much less a full scholarship. We certainly thought merit awards (in some unknown amounts) were possible, but you don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

          If her choice turned out to be between NU and another school with out of state tuition exceeding 170k per year, our decision making process would have been quite different. Beyond that, know that the totality of our 18 month college selection process is not told in the story due to lack of space, etc.

          For example, there was another top tier school in the mix which we visited…twice. At one point, that school was #1 on her list. In considering the cost of same and the truly terrible reputation the school has for aid to any student (including those with obvious, quantifiable financial need), we had a full and frank discussion and explained that an application to that university would simply not happen. Our daughter understood and readily accepted that decision then…and now.

          A final decision on college selection can only be made when all the facts are in and on the table. At that point, it is only prudent to consider all the pros and cons before finalizing a decision. Money, perhaps unfortunately but certainly realistically, is part of that discussion. I am sure we all wish the realities of financing a university education were as they were back when I went to college in the 1970’s. We all know that is not currently the case.

          There is no question that NU is a superb, world class institution. Admission to same is, as you rightly point out, a major accomplishment. In fact, the admission letter our daughter received from NU stated that this was its “most selective class in history” or words to that effect.

          But, having the ability to continue one’s education on the graduate level is also a major accomplishment. I believe that about four years from now, our daughter will have both the ability to gain admission to an outstanding graduate program and the opportunity to participate in same without fear of crushing financial debt. I am sincere in saying that I hope she has the grades and the opportunity to attend NU or another world class institution for grad school.


          So, absent the full scholarship the decision making process surrounding the selection of an undergraduate institution would have been quite different. With that said, I continue to agree with Lynn’s position; that is, there are plenty of schools out there offering excellent educational “bang for the buck.”

          Also, keep in mind that we (our family) all became educated over time as to the realities of financing a college education (thanks, Lynn). We grew in our collective appreciation of and for the entirety of the economics of post secondary education in the United States (again, thanks Lynn). My daughter is a case in point. She now admits without reservation that accepting a full college scholarship, as opposed to exhausting her college fund on an undergrad degree, was the absolute right thing to do (at least in her case). After all, that decision combined with her hard work as an undergrad has resulted in the opportunity to study at one of the world’s leading universities.

          Mike (“Pitt Dad”)

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            Thanks Mike for that great explanation and sharing your daughter’s experience. I know it has been helpful to many parents and I hope it will inspire families not to make poor decisions when contemplating college choices!

            Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. My daughter and older son, who both attended James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia, which is an undergraduate-focused, public university known for having professors who emphasize teaching and making connections with students, landed excellent internships and jobs in their chosen field with the help and guidance of professors and departmental advisors at JMU with whom they developed meaningful connections. My daughter landed an excellent internship and eventually permanent job with NGA, a federal agency that supports military operations overseas through the use of geospatial intelligence. JMU’s Geographic Information Science (GIS)/Geographic Science program is excellent, with lots of hands-on lab experience and opportunities to assist professors with research (as there’s no graduate level program there to take on the choicest research opportunities), and professors who are plugged into professional networks in the field across Virginia and in the vital DC-area job market. My son chose to go the environmental conservation route, applying his GIS skills to working in the land conservation field. These professors personally assisted both of my kids in lining up internships, exploring various possibilities and determining what would be fulfilling for each of them while also drawing on their skills learned at JMU, directing them towards good opportunities that would interest them and that they could qualify for, and helping them build the confidence to do all of it. The result? My son now works for a quasi-state/quasi non-profit environmental land conservation agency in Charlottesville, VA doing work he loves with good pay and great benefits, and they are going to help fund his work on a masters in environmental policy at the University of Virginia (UVA). Most of his colleagues already have masters degrees and had to have them to land the jobs, but I believe my son was able to get the same job without already having a masters because of how his professors at JMU helped set him up with a mix of on-campus research experiences, independent study projects, and internships that helped him develop the right combination of skills to be successful in competing for such a job. My daughter had a similar experience in which she received excellent advice, insight into opportunities, and guidance through her relationships with professors — both completed their degrees in JMU’s College of Integrated Science and Engineering, which includes the Geographic Science department. This department sponsors a study abroad program where the students spend eight weeks in Malta over the summer and are paired with students at the University of Malta, and together they work on conservation projects assigned to them by a non-profit aligned with the university called Nature Trust Malta. My son included this experience on his resume, and his employer told him it was one of several reasons that they hired him and that it made him stand out above the other applicants, even some who had masters degrees. I share this to illustrate and bolster Lynn’s assertion that it’s what students do in whatever college they attend that matters even more than which college they attend. All colleges have unique, meaningful opportunities and at least some helpful professors — not just the most prestigious or most expensive schools. Students just have to be willing to take advantage of the opportunities. JMU offers amazingly high quality study abroad programs that are closely monitored and improved upon directly by the faculty of the university. This is something that we were not expecting from a public university, and after my kids compared their experiences with JMU’s study abroad programs with those of their friends who attended schools such as Duke, Brown, and UVA, It was apparent that JMU’s programs were every bit as high quality, and in many cases received more support and attention from faculty than those at more expensive, graduate focused schools. The final result of all of this is that each of my older kids has a great job that is a real career with many growth opportunities, absolutely no debt, and employers who are going to pay for their graduate studies at prestigious universities. They both work alongside young adults who attended private, expensive, name-brand schools who are paying off significant student loans, and my kids were able to land the same jobs as they were, having come from a regular state university. Next year, my daughter plans to begin working on her masters degree at Johns Hopkins University, and my son will work on his masters degree at the University of Virginia, and neither of them will have to pay a cent for this. I credit not only their hard work and persistence as undergraduates, but also the great opportunities they received through attending a university that although not as famous as a couple of other schools in Virginia, is a fantastic value, emphasizes the needs of undergraduates, and has professors teaching most courses (not grad students or teaching assistants) who are also approachable, accessible, and interested in building relationships with undergraduate students.

  5. Lynn
    I remember reading the original article – the story is iconic.
    I wish you had included a link to the (most recent) research that you mention.
    My own experience confirms your bigger point, but i have always felt there was one exception to misplaced faith in elitist schools: medical schools seem to prefer elitist degrees in their candidates.
    I tend to think this reflects the grade inflation that goes on in these schools, or possibly the fact that medical schools admissions are linked to ability to pay.
    I also believe that elitist law schools prefer candidates that attended elitist undergrads, for the reasons above and to enhance their monopolies.
    Not that this effects your bigger point – if you weren’t born with a golden ticket, you ain’t gettn’ one in college.

    1. Post

      HI Dave,

      Medical schools rely heavily on GPA and MCAT scores. Here is a link to the stats:
      Unless a person wants to go into academia at an elite medical school, I can’t imagine that the source of the undergrad degree will make much difference,. At the end of the day, you will be a doctor practicing medicine.

      Going to law school is going to be a poor idea for most students. It’s expensive and the job prospects and pay for most is underwhelming.

      With law and medical school so expensive, paying $300,000 or more for an undergrad degree makes little sense when it will cost that much to get the second degree.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Lynn
        here is a recent study that i think would interest you and your clients:

        “Do students from public schools fare better in medical school than their colleagues from private schools? If so, what can we learn from this?”

        the main conclusion:
        “Moreover, our findings were consistent with other Portuguese [14], Norwegian [15] and British studies [16], which have demonstrated that students who come from private schools perform worse in university in general and worse in medical school in particular. ”


        “Even with moderate to weak effect sizes, the present study shows that regardless of whether the secondary school of origin inflated students’ grades, medical students who come from public secondary schools performed better in medical school, at least in the early years.”

    2. I would side with Lynn here. GPA and MCAT (or LSAT or GRE scores) are perhaps the most important factor in graduate admissions. I would also add that research opportunities with professors, as an undergraduate, are also essential, especially if it results in co-authorship (or major credit given) on that research. At a place like Pitt, if you are in the Honors Program, you probably have easier access to those opportunities. My husband went to an elite law school, and in that school were students from state universities, small bible colleges, ivies, and elite public schools as well as those considered non-elite. I hate the labels we attach to such opportunities. Many factors play out and I can attest to evidence on this from family experiences. I always tell my students that the name of the school can get you the interview, but can that school help you “keep the job and excel in it.” What matters most is “what you do with what you’ve got” — take advantage of opportunities wherever you go.

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  6. Lynn- As always sound advice that not only saves money but promotes grad school, which I have always thought to be the true golden ticket! Best, Bob