Saying No to a Dream College


Will your child end up going to his or her dream school?

The odds are that your child won’t if the college or university is a rankings alpha dog. And that’s especially true if you don’t enjoy a powerful hook such as being a celebrity or a one-percenter kid, a legacy or an athlete.

The story I’m sharing today is of a super achiever from the Chicago suburbs who did beat the odds. She got into Northwestern University, which was her dream school. She will, however, be attending a different university in the fall. And it’s not because the parents can’t afford the Northwestern price tag.

Before I let her dad share her story, here is background on this super-achieving student:

With a GPA of roughly 4.7, she will graduate second in a class of about 350.  She earned a ACT score is 35.  She has taken 9 AP courses so far, including Calculus AB/BC, Physics and Macro and Micro Economics, and received a five on every AP test but one.   She is taking six more AP courses in her final semester of high school. She has been on Student Council and is a member of the NHS.  She is active in her church and she knows sign language.


Northwestern University

I received an email from this teenager’s dad  about the decision to either pay a quarter million dollars for their only child to attend Northwestern or select Door No. 2 which would cost them peanuts.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about the parents’ decision.

 A Dad’s Email 

My wife and I have read your books and we keep up with your blog.  Our only child will be graduating from high school in a few weeks.

In the fall, she will be attending the University of Pittsburgh on a full academic scholarship.

Your writings got us thinking about the cost of college and how to pay for same.  Since we have only one child and we both work, our task in financing education is a lot easier than that of others.  We have been able to accumulate about $200,000 in college savings.  I thought that would be enough (silly me), but as you know the cost of “top tier schools and flagships” can be as much as $250,000 plus.

University of Pittsburgh copy

U. of Pittsburgh

My daughter was accepted at University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, University of Pittsburgh and Drew University, my alma mater.  Drew gave her a 25k-per-year scholarship, but she wasn’t really interested in attending.

She had her heart set on Northwestern.  As you know, Northwestern does not give out merit scholarships.

Parents Saying No

We had “the conversation” last night.

We explained that with the full ride at Pitt, her college fund would essentially remain untouched (we will have to pay room and board at Pitt, but in the grand scheme of college costs that’s no big deal).  When she graduates college, she will have perhaps $150,000 or more for graduate school.

We could have allowed her to go to Northwestern, but her college fund would have been wiped out and we would have had to come up with another 40 – 50k or so. 

Ultimately, my wife and I had to be the adults in the room and say “no” to Northwestern.  It wasn’t easy, but I truly believe it was the right thing to do.  Your written advice (books and blogs) was, at least in my mind, crucial to our decision.

We have visited Pitt twice and were very impressed on each occasion.  She wanted a big school in a big city and Pitt satisfies both of those desires.

As fine a school as Northwestern is, it’s hard for me to believe any bachelor’s degree is worth upwards of 250k.

I am confident my daughter will receive an outstanding education at Pitt.  In four years, she will have her undergraduate degree along with the ability to finance a graduate education….perhaps at a place like Northwestern!

University of PittsburghNone of this might have happened if we had not read your materials.

You have described how good schools just below the so-called “top tier” give significant merit awards (or tuition discounts) to good students.   Having considered your advice, we did some research and suspected that our daughter had a shot at a merit award at Pitt (that’s one of the reasons we considered Pitt), but I have to say the full ride was a bit of a shock.

Anyway…..thanks Lynn for getting us to think outside the proverbial box.  Not only will  our daughter’s college education be funded (thanks to her hard work and perseverance in high school), but we will be in a position to provide a large chunk of money for graduate education !!

Your advice was right on the money (pun intended).

When You Can’t Attend a Dream School

After reading this dad’s email, I was curious about how his daughter had reacted to the news that she would not be attending Northwestern. I was particularly curious because the family did have the money to cover most of the cost. Here is what the dad said:

Our daughter’s reaction to the Northwestern veto was tearful and emotional.  It was hard to watch and experience.  We all want to do everything we can for our kids and we typically want to say “yes” to their requests.  We knew her reaction would be teary and full of profound disappointment, but we felt we had to do what we ultimately did for her long term benefit.  We had to say “no.”

Now, two days later, my daughter is online in a Pitt forum looking for a roommate!!  Seems like she is happily looking toward her future as a Panther.

Another Parent’s Story: Saying No to Barnard College

Last week I also heard from a dad in Nebraska whose daughter had her heart set on going to Barnard College in New York City. Her family didn’t have enough money to cover the cost – the parents didn’t qualify for financial aid – and the dad’s job situation is a bit iffy. The smart teenager did receive merit money from some liberal arts colleges including Goucher College in Maryland.


Barnard College

The dad was stressing as he anticipated his daughter’s reaction to the news that she would not be able to attend Barnard. Actually, he and his wife had contemplated allowing their daughter to go to Barnard even though it would have posed a financial hardship. The thought of disappointing his daughter seemed to weigh heavily on the dad’s shoulders.

I asked him to let me know what happened and here is the follow-up email he sent me in which he shared that his daughter will be going to Goucher College:

She’s disappointed that we couldn’t afford the “dream” school, but she has been doing a lot of research the last few days on Goucher and has a plan for which dorm she wants. She made contact with the head of the IR department and she’s planning to apply for the International Scholars Program. In other words she’s moving forward and starting to take charge, so that she can make the most out of the experience.

 Bottom Line:

It is possible to say no to your teenagers who want to go to obscenely expensive colleges!

Being a overachiever in high school shouldn’t automatically entitle a teenager to attend his or her dream school at any cost!  Think about it this way:  If your teenager was an excellent, responsible driver, would that automatically mean you should buy them a new fully loaded BMW convertible? Of course not.

Here is something else to think about…

The brains of teenagers won’t be fully developed until they are in their mid 20s. The part that is still growing controls rational thought. That’s why they might think that going into debt to pay for a bachelor’s degree that costs $250,000 or more is a great idea.

Please save them from themselves!


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  1. Am I missing something here? This just sounds hyper-controlling parents. They seem to have made both the decision to apply and the decision to attend for their daughter. They had 80% of the cost of attendance saved up, but withheld it for what? So it could be spent on grad school later?..

    What happens when she asks for that $150K to pay for her Kellogg MBA – will the parents tell her to get an MBA from Katz and save the money for a PhD program?

  2. In today’s economy: I dont think these kids are going to get the high income jobs they expect by going to these elite schools. If you are a doctor, lawyer, teacher, dentist, it still will come down to passing your boards and that is all hospitals, institutions care about- did you pass your boards. Save your money for undergrad and throw it in a graduate program if you must.

  3. We let our child go to a school that was not affordable to us because we went to schools that were affordable with full scholarship and that only gave us a miserable life. We are in professions where the name of the college matters and suffered all our life despite being very capable people. We decided that we will work our selves to pay the tuition for our child.

    1. I don’t want to come off as too snarky here but I have a hard time believing that your “miserable life” was a direct result of your attendance at affordable, full scholarship schools. Can you elaborate a little? Was there something you thought you were going to be able to do and it was denied you? What professions are you speaking of that require certain college names? A job on Wall Street a high end law firm? If so, does going to a better grad school for a high end Finance degree or a top law school make more sense than putting all the money into a top undergrad school? Again, I’m honestly looking for thoughts on this from Karen S or anyone else.

  4. Ugh. Thanks for this awesome blog. We are having a brief discussion this weekend about our daughter’s top 4 choices. We want her to consider at least one in state school, but she has her mind set on out of state schools. Any ideas?

  5. It seems to me that all of you are only thinking from the perspective of the parent. It also seems like you’re all assuming the parents are going to pay. Why is that? If the student wants to go elsewhere and it isn’t the cheapest, let them shoulder the costs, especially if it’s their dream school.
    It is so incredibly sad reading the articles from the child’s perspectives. To have a 4.7 GPA, 35 ACT, high SAT score, 8-10 AP classes, an active volunteer in the community, and otherwise put in SO much effort for their future, only to be told no?
    While it is commendable that so many parents are willing to pay for their children’s education, that is not a granted. Not all parents have to or should pay. It is ultimately the student’s life, and they should consider for themselves what the best options are.
    Maybe try looking at this from a perspective that isn’t an over-protective parent.

  6. We said YES to our child’s dream and here’s why:

    – Our child’s ‘dream’ is also the school that offered her the most aid.

    – She is in a highly specialized area and had to achieve entrance to both her university and her selected college/program, and she did!

    – Her other option was community college locally (for free) where one of us works, and then re-try for admittance and probably have to do 3 years and not just 2, so no great savings there.

    – Grandma offered to help make up the difference and to help avoid some of the extra loans (we have no college fund for our kids).

    – She was our first, and we were unprepared to have to make this kind of decision. We are wiser now and have already informed the younger ones that tough decisions will have to be made and that they will go wherever they get the most money even if it’s not their dream.

    – There are fewer interchangeable options for Orthodox Jewish kids who have needs like a Jewish life on campus or Kosher meal plans. You’d be surprised how many schools don’t have/offer kosher food.

    -The child will not be going to a separate graduate school; she is in a 5-year BFA/MA program, so this is it.

    Are we stressed about money? Absolutely, but so is just about every other parent with a kid in college. Are we worried about how these loans will be paid off? Yes. That’s why I got a second job to avoid even more loans and why we’ve started buying lottery tickets. (No Joke). There are no rules or simple decisions here, and before you ask, yes, we did have a lot of conversations (many tear-filled) with our child before we came to this decision.

    The Bigger Issue here is that college costs have spiraled out of control and it is time for our government to do something about it. College loans, which used to be guaranteed by the government, have become big business, so much so that they those banks and loan services hire lobbyists to protect their interests, and they are protecting their own interests at tremendous cost to the families of these students and to the future of these students as well. I for one have started writing to my lawmakers so that we don’t have to make these decisions in future. If you are reading this, I suggest you do the same.

  7. Christopher makes a good point. In many cases, the choice is between the $65 k great option vs. the $30k less great option. Every family has to make their own decision about where the value point is on the expense spectrum.

  8. This reply is for christopher and anyone else trying to figure out the ‘break even point’.
    My kid was similar to other advanced students mentioned here in that she had AP and duel enrollment credit – she entered collage with 45 units. No expensive private school will let you graduate early. She will finish in 3 years.
    If a student can do this the money is immense: not only will you save 30k in tuition, you will also have an extra year of salary and experience. Furthermore this extra money is coming at the beginning of the student’s career, so apply a multiplier to the value. 100k extra at age 20 is 3/4 million at age 60.
    Whats the degree worth? For the untalented quite a bit. The truly talented don’t care.

  9. I absolutely agree with this. As a recent college graduate, I’ve had plenty of friends and acquaintances that HAD to go to their dream school despite its high costs. It’s certainly good practice for students to take a step back and weigh their options while taking everything into consideration!

  10. Lynn’s advice is always spot on! My son is graduating from Wake Forest University May 15, 2017! He applied to 12 schools, slam dunks and reach schools, most gave financial aid. He was accepted to all but 1, he narrowed his decision down to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (in state for us) and Wake Forest. UNC gave him 0 dollars, financial or merit, Wake Forest offered him scholarships to bring down their price to compete with UNC and he felt that Wake Forest has a better program and a better reputation. It was absolutely worth the money for Wake, he has a full time job beginning on May 19, 2017. So, so very proud of him! College is what your child will put into it, not how much it will cost to graduate.

  11. I’m new to this website so apologies if my question is not a new one.

    In your article entitled, “No To a Dream College”, the decision made was: full cost of an expensive school like Northwestern vs. paying nothing (but room and board) at Pitt. I remembered another article, something about going to Northeastern, where the focus of the article was again, paying nothing at one school vs. paying full price at Northeastern. To me, the decision of full price vs. zero is not a difficult decision. While I certainly understand that it’s easy for me to say before having to explain to my child that they cannot go to their dream school, I think I’d have 250,000 reasons to convince them and I’m pretty sure they would eventually see it my way. Go to Pitt.

    The reason I’m writing is to get your perspective on how to approach this decision when the option is not zero vs. full price. Many of us won’t be given the $0 (exclusive of room and board) option. Some of our children will be offered an academic scholarship, which is terrific, but it won’t equal the entire bill. While I appreciate that there’s no perfect answer, I want to know the best decision to make if the school only wants to pay part of the tuition.

    Using $66K as an example of full price, which is on or around what most of the top schools want per year, let’s assume $10K is room and board and thus the tuition portion of the yearly cost is $56K per year. If the school gives you an academic award of $26K per year so that you only pay $30K per year (not $0) in tuition, is it still worth it to pass on the super school and go to a school like Pitt? In your response, it would be helpful to know the break even point, if such a point exists, where it makes sense to go to the lesser school or if it’s better to pay full price because the reputation of the school is worth the money.


  12. Great post (like all the other posts I’ve read over the past year-plus), Lynn. Our daughter got accepted to Tufts University but they don’t do merit aid either (and we don’t qualify for need-based aid). Our appeal (which you helped me with) didn’t yield anything, no surprise. She did get a $19K/year merit scholarship from U.Rochester, which they upped to $22K/yr when we asked ever so nicely for more. (See The sticker price for both is just about the same, but with the scholarship at Rochester the net is well within our budget. We explained and Rebecca understood that if she really wanted to attend Tufts we couldn’t afford the extra $$ and she would be taking loans and working extra hard to pay off or avoid loans and that’s probably not a burden an 18-year old should sign up to. (One might question our applying to Tufts and other expensive no-merit-scholarship schools in the first place, but that’s another story.) We did not have a “difficult” or tearful conversation because she’s sensible and we had conditioned her (“it’s not where you go, it’s what you do there”) to not get her heart set on any particular “dream” college or colleges. Rochester is a “research university”, and I did read your post on that as well, but they emphasize how many freshman get involved in research, they don’t have graduate students teaching courses (except some advanced ones), etc. (We got some blank stares at the Tufts Math Dept when we asked about undergraduate involvement in research – they basically admitted that grad students come first.) That’s what they say, and we’ll find out!

  13. I can relate to just about every comment here. It’s hard to go against the flow, but hopefully the mindset that only prestige matters will quickly change its course as college prices squeeze out even the most resistant. I have to say that with our second chlld this has been the case as we caved with our oldest and she was awarded a modest scholarship. Luckily, she will be graduating two quarters early from UChicago as they are on the trimester system, This year she lived off campus, saving about $7k in housing and food. As for our second daughter, she had to let go of her first choice, Wellesley. Like Mary, we knew this school did not give mierit aiid but because they touted their generosity in need based aid and the fact that we will have two in college, she applied to Wellesely and Barnard knowing that the chances were slim. But each of the 6 remaining schools that were generaous with aid gave her merit for half to over half tuition. Carleton came back with near half tuition as need based aid. She really liked Carleton, but since we probably won’t qualify for aid in the last 3 years, we decided against attending Carleton. Smith might be the one, but we are still deciding at the 11th hour.

  14. I appreciate all this information and advice, and it all makes sense to me. My son is a sophomore in high school and mostly we want him to go to a school where he’ll fit in. He’s a brilliant kid–currently taking AP Calc AB/BC and AP Physics C, among others, but the main problem is that they’re easy for him–he has excellent grades and test scores (took the SAT when he was 13 and got nearly perfect scores without prepping, he’s skipped a grade, etc.), but he has yet to put in any effort. He also has interesting extra-curriculars. He doesn’t fit in easily with peers–intellectually he’s light years ahead–just a very unique mind. I’m writing that because we know it will have to be a highly intellectual environment if he’s going to thrive in undergrad. How do we find that environment without a high sticker price? He definitely won’t be happy in a school dominated by sports or Greek system. He’s hard a hard time being a kid, we just want him to be happy in college.

    1. Christa – For an advanced student such as your son, a look at Early College, such as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, might be worth your consideration.

      1. Thank you–that’s a good suggestion. He doesn’t want to leave school early because he’s so young, but we’ll try to figure something out.

  15. With two juniors just now looking at schools, I feel we have really benefitted from Lynn’s advice, as it has helped us temper our expectations, and also put good schools (not previously known to us) on our radar. I wish my own twin sister had been exposed to Lynn’s advice, and it is her son’s story I want to share.

    Max is an incredibly talented kid–awesome scores and grades at a prestigious boarding school. Mulitple APs and a perfect score on the national Latin exam. He was offered $150K from SMU, $120K from USC, accepted to Honors Colllege at Georgia with $$ as well, but he has chosen . . . Georgetown. Now, granted, this is where both his mom (my twin) and dad, and aunts/uncles/grandparents etc have gone (actually, he’ll be a 5th generation Hoya–amazing!–and is the only one of the four nieces and nephews I have who applied and has actually got in), but now they’re looking at a $70K cost per year, with no 529 plans to pay for it. They definitely have resources, but it will still be a stretch to make this work, given they have another son at UGA, and their youngest still in boarding school.

  16. With two juniors just now looking at schools, I feel we have really benefitted from Lynn’s advice, as it has helped us temper our expectations, and also put good schools (not previously known to us) on our radar. I wish my own twin sister had been exposed to Lynn’s advice, and it is her son’s story I want to share.

    Max is an incredibly talented kid–awesome scores and grades at a prestigious boarding school. Mulitple APs and a perfect score on the national Latin exam. He was offered $150K from SMU, $120K from USC, accepted to Honors Colllege at Georgia with $$ as well, but he has chosen . . . Georgetown. Now, granted, this is where both his mom (my twin) and dad, and aunts/uncles/grandparents etc have gone (actually, he’ll be a 5th generation Hoya–amazing!–and is the only one of the four nieces and nephews I have who applied and has actually got in), but now they’re looking at a $70K cost per year, with no 529 plans to pay for it. They definitely have resources, but it will still be a stretch to make this work, given they have another son at UGA, and their youngest still in boarding school.

    Sometimes love for one’s alma mater trumps good sense.

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      Hi Jean,

      I am glad that you have benefited from my advice! I am sorry to hear that your sister was bitten by the prestige bug! I think it is even more difficult to resist when your child would be a legacy. It’s hard to imagine a 5th-generation legacy!

      I wish you luck with your own children!!

      Lynn O.

  17. Very similar profile to the Northwestern dream school super achiever daughter above. Said “no” to Notre Dame, Emory, UVa….among others. Son picked almost full-ride to Michigan State after winning competitive merit scholarship for full-tuition. Applied to 30 schools…I know, crazy. Played merit game as no financial aid coming and paid off. Lynn said to cast a wide net! Physics program at MSU comparable to others. Why pay $250k undergrad? I need to email you the results of all, Lynn. Would be great case study as I learned alot.

  18. My thoughts? The parents should receive an honorary doctorate in parenting. They did the right thing. And their kid will be way better off as a result.

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  19. What a bunch of BS.
    You daughter worked so hard to get there , you let her apply to Northwestern knowing you would not pay for it and then pull the rug from under her..
    Do your homework before..

    1. That’s very rude and simplistic. Most ‘first time’ parents DON”T know this. Heck, I work at a college and I didn’t know that there are schools that don’t pledge to meet eligibility or that are not ‘need blind.’ Cut parents some slack. One thing I’ve learned in my life, and certainly as a parent, is that we do our research and make the best decision we can thinking we know about 85-90% of the information, only to learn that we knew about 3% – and that is also a life lesson for our kids: we are fallible and sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we’ve chosen the wrong school and will have to transfer. I like to think that we learn the most from our mistakes, but it’s true that sometimes those lessons are painful.

  20. Just because parents CAN afford the Rolls Royce or Bentley college or the new car as a birthday gift, doesn’t mean they should make the purchase. I feel very strongly that the parents are the adults and are making a financial commitment to pay for college, in many cases. That does not mean the student HAS to choose the Rolls Royce college because the parents can pay for it! The Nissan college can be just as good and in some cases (maybe a lot of cases) better for the student.
    I had a family this year that challenged me. Parents wanted their daughter to go to College A. The daughter was not a great match to College A, but was a perfect match to College B. When I suggested to the parents that they consider College B for their daughter, the mom told me it’s full of very wealthy kids and doesn’t want her daughter going there. Well, the irony is that this is a family that goes on very lavish vacations multiple times a year and stays at the Ritz Carleton (more power to them), lives in a very–very–affluent suburb, the daughter is surrounded by wealth. And who does the parent think is going to colleges? It’s not the daughter’s fault that she’s surrounded by primarily very affluent people, but what is this parent trying to teach her child? I honestly cannot understand it, but the parent sure wasn’t going to listen to me. While at a wedding the parent met someone from the area where College B is located. Mom calls me after the trip and tells me that she met someone at a wedding that knows about College B. The level of wealth is not exactly what she thought it was…….ok, whatever. The daughter would’ve thrived at College B, but instead she’s going to College A after being accepted for spring term. I’ve got concerns about College A…’s much more rigorous…..and did I mention that there are affluent students at College A, too?? Frustrated IEC, L

  21. This is a great post, and I wish we had really taken this to heart a year or two ago. Parents, believe what Lynn is telling you! 🙂

    My eldest of three is currently a college freshman. During his search we were advised to apply to schools where he was above their target student, to get merit aid. This was not hard for him – National Merit Scholar, 35 ACT/2340 SAT high GPA, many APs, athlete… He did apply to six schools that give merit aid, but he applied to four that do not.

    Why did I let him apply to those four? Because I thought, “He’s so smart and he worked so hard! Shouldn’t he go to his dream school?” I also thought, “Maybe we’ll get financial aid.” This is the bane of the upper-middle income family. I’m a single parent of three. I don’t make THAT much money, and we live in an area with a high cost of living. We thought maybe colleges who did not offer merit aid might give us some needs-based aid to entice my great catch of a son.

    He fell in love with Carleton College. We visited twice, including an athlete overnight. We did the same at other colleges too. Well, he got into Carleton. And Colby and Vassar. But each gave him zero dollars, so they were out. We had had the talk before the acceptances came in, so he knew if they gave nothing, he’d have to decline. Still, it was hard to send that “no” to Carleton.

    Happily, he got into six other colleges, each of which gave him $25K – $27K per year, bringing all into our range of affordability. (He has a healthy college fund, but no $250K.) He is now at Oberlin and loving it. Now I realize this is a very high-class problem; neither of us feels Oberlin is at all a compromise – it’s one of the top LACs in the country. The difference between his experience and outcomes at one vs. the other is probably too small to even consider.
    So I learned my lesson in time for kid #2: We will never apply to any college that does not give merit aid and we will only apply to those where my student is above the middle 50% and eligible for a scholarship.

    My son was also accepted at a range of other LACs; his third choice (after Carleton and Oberlin) was arguably a “safety school.” But that’s the other thing we learned: LOVE your safeties. Visit them. Imagine yourself there. We visited four schools that were slam-dunks for him, and he truly liked each one. He applied to three of those and would have been happy at any of them.

    I also learned that schools that offer no merit aid are not necessarily better than those that do. There are many reasons schools give scholarships, including competition for applicants and endowment. And for sure they might not be a better fit for your child, something that has little to do with the prestige of the school.

    Thank you for this post and thanks to the parents who shared their stories. They really help the hard-headed dreamers like me do the right thing for their kids. Happy hunting!

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      Hi Mary,

      I loved that you shared your real-life example. I think your reasons for letting your son apply to no-merit aid schools is quite common and I totally get it. Frankly, you were a head of the game because you actually could tell the difference between schools that don’t provide merit aid and those that do!

      It was also smart to pick “safeties” (I hate that word) that your son could have been happy at.

      I am glad your son got into a great school and is loving it. Thanks again for sharing your story with other parents!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  22. Same thing here: Brown or Cornell at full cost or Scripps at 50% off. That is a big difference given that I have two more kids to put through college. We have a good income but not $750,000 for tuition. It is a tough nut to crack but I am not willing to put myself in a financial hole I might never get out of.
    So off to Scripps she is come September to major in computer science, which she will be doing at Harvey Mudd and physics. I think this was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made.

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      Hi Stefan,

      Congratulations on the Scripps decision. That was so smart and to me a total no brainer!

      I wish your daughter great success at Scripps and Harvey Mudd!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Hi Stefan,

      Our daughter went through a very similar experience … Northwestern, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, WUSTL with little to no aid, or Scripps (her “safety”) at 50% off through JESS. When she visited, she liked most of them but ended up loving Scripps. I asked her what she’d choose if $$ were not a factor, and turns out that Scripps was her favorite 🙂

      She, too, is planning to major in Comp Sci (at Harvey Mudd) and Neuroscience.

      Best of luck to your daughter and maybe they’ll run into each other next year!

  23. We knew, based on net price calculators, that we would qualify for very little to no financial aid, so we did not have our daughter (4.0; 34 ACT) apply to need-based-aid only schools. We played the merit aid game. However, we did make one mistake that Lynn often warns her readers of: applying to expensive, popular colleges in popular locations like Fordham, George Washington, University of Miami, etc. Our daughter received “Presidential Scholarships” ranging from 19-25K, which would bring the cost of attendance at those schools to about 50K, when you factor in travel. This was about 10K outside of our budget. And we drew and held our line in the sand. Fortunately, our daughter did apply to some colleges outside of that category, so we do have some great, affordable options. Our daughter is now deciding between our strong state flagship and a good – but not highly ranked – private university in our area.Thanks Lynn for all of your helpful advice during this process!

  24. Wow, does this post hit home. Our daughter was accepted to Bates and Washington and Lee. We knew W & L would not award us aid, but she applied with the hopes of one of their scholarships. Bates we did the net price calculator and based on that let her apply, however the she was not awarded the aid as was calculated by us. Both of these schools would have cost above $60,000 a year. $20,000 more per year than we could afford. Our daughter would have had to take out a total of $80,000 in loans. We discussed with her the ramifications of graduating with that type of debt. Good thing, as now she is a Junior majoring in Chemistry at Willamette University and has decided she wants to attend medical school. She loves Willamette and has received an excellent education and opportunities for paid research during the summer, in addition to working closely with her organic chemistry professor who has been an excellent role model. She also earns extra money tutoring organic chemistry and was awarded a generous merit award upon acceptance to make this an affordable gem. She now can take out loans for medical school without the added burden of undergrad loans. Her sister is four years older and has friends who took out big loans for undergrad “brand name schools” and now are in jobs they want to leave, but can’t because of the monthly loan debt they have to pay. You don’t need a “big name” school to succeed. Our older daughter graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with no debt and is now PhD student at an Ivy League. I hope this helps parents out there who have to say no to that “dream” school in order for their child to fulfill the dreams they will discover during their growth at an affordable undergraduate institution.

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      Hi Heather,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I obviously agree 100% with what you say. There is absolutely no need to go into onerous debt for a school that U.S. News praises.

      I visited Willamette with my son and we spent time with a couple of physics professors and I was so impressed with them and the research opportunities there. Opportunities, by the way, that you would very rarely get as an undergraduate at a research university.

      St. Mary’s, which is a public honors college, is definitely worth checking out as well!

      Lynn O.