Saying No to Northwestern University


A highly effective way to make college more affordable is to enroll in my upcoming course, The College Cost Lab. You can learn more about the class and enroll here. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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 billionaire’s kid, a legacy or an athlete.

The story I’m sharing today is of a brilliant girl 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 last week 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 Your 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.

 What Do You Think?

I was glad to hear that both girls seem to be quickly moving on.

I am particularly interested in what you think about the Illinois parents’ decision.







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  1. Save the money for graduate school. An undergraduate degree is not worth the money unless you are going straight thru from Bachelors to PhD at say Harvard or Yale or something. Most of the time, future opportunities don’t even care about undergraduate experiences as those programs as now being compared to a general education like high school. It’s all about your terminal degree program. I have a master’s from Northwestern (fully funded thankfully) and when teaching as part of my assistanceship I often overheard undergrad students complaining on how expensive it was. 70k a year for a bachelors? That’s insane!

  2. I know this blog is over a year old, but I wish Pitt Dad could give a one year follow-up. Do they still think that sending their daughter to Pitt was the best decision? What is his daughter’s assessment?

    Although we don’t have the 200k in savings, we are agonizing about choosing Pitt and its free tuition scholarship over a school that my daughter really wants to go to. I heard such positive things about Pitt, but after visiting I can’t stop thinking that I must have missed something. I had such high hopes because of the generous scholarship and the access to research, but I left Pittsburgh thinking that maybe some debt is worth it.

    It would be helpful to hear what his daughter thinks about choosing the best financial choice over her first choice after one year there.

    1. Hi LH,

      I can’t emphasize enough that a brand name school is not worth going into debt over!!!!

      Did you truly research Pitt? A campus visit, unless done properly, won’t tell you much.

      Here is what you should do when looking at schools:
      Many families gravitate to what they call “great schools” without having any idea of whether these institutions merit their reputations.

      In reality, no college or university is a monolithic entity that is uniformly excellent, average or mediocre. That’s why just picking schools by relying on general impressions, U.S. News’ actual rankings or a campus tour won’t be adequate.

      Kevin Carey, a preeminent higher-ed commentator, wrote the following excellent article in The New York Times that states that the real differences in teaching quality happen at the department or even teacher level.

      The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion,

      A university could have a tremendous English department that regularly places graduates in top PhD programs, but it could also have a business department that produces weak graduates that regional industries spurn. A college could have a fantastic theater department with a pipeline to Broadway, but a mediocre chemistry department saddled with poor lab facilities.

      When researching your candidates, you’ll need to drill down and look at academic departments. Here are some things you can do:

      1. Visit the academic department website and read everything you can. Once on the website, look for information like this:

      • Department’s vision/mission statement.
      • Undergraduate advising.
      • Scholarships.
      • Department’s description of its undergraduate education.
      • FAQ.
      • Courses.
      • Graduation outcomes – graduate and professional schools, jobs.
      • Number and background of professors in department.
      • Number of undergraduates in the major.
      • Undergraduate research opportunities.
      • Internships opportunities.
      • Faculty awards – especially best teacher honors.
      • Undergraduate awards such as Goldwater, Rhodes and Fulbrights.
      • Departmental newsletter.
      • Events.
      • Student organization devoted to this major.

      Example: Check out the Physics Department at North Carolina State University to discover what a model academic website looks like.

      2. After identifying a promising school, your child should reach out to one or two professors and ask them intelligent questions about the major including those listed in this section. If the professors don’t respond that should cause concern.

      Ask professors for names of upper division students in the department. Contact these students and ask questions about the major including:

      • Describe the access that students have with their professors.
      • Is access limited to office hours and, if so, are they sufficient?
      • Do the professors make you excited about learning?
      • On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate the professors in this department? Why?
      • How easy or hard is it to find mentors among the faculty?
      • Have you or other students experienced difficulties finding faculty to provide recommendations for med school, grad school, jobs?
      • Are you assigned a faculty advisor?
      • How would you rate the rigor of the work?
      • Does the faculty make an effort to keep students progressing in the major or do they treat lower division classes, in particular, as a means to wash out students?
      • What are typical class sizes for lower division and upper division classes?
      • On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate the academic quality of the courses? And why?
      • How much opportunity is there (if any) for undergraduate research?
      • What kind of internship opportunities are there?
      • What do students with this major do after graduating from this school including grad school, jobs and nonprofit work?
      • What support is there for students wanting to attend grad school and what grad schools are students attending?
      • Is it possible to double major or have a minor with when pursuing a major in this department?
      • Is it possible to study abroad with this major?
      • What questions haven’t I asked you that are relevant?

      3. Ideally students should visit colleges and universities that make the final list before applying. An in-depth campus visit can help determine if a school would be an appropriate choice.

      During a campus visit, a student should make sure to arrange a visit to the department(s) that interests him or her. The student and parent(s) should talk to at least one professor in the department, as well as students in that major and also those not in this academic major.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Honestly, I think this is a plague that is starting to sweep across the country. I’m sorry but I do think children should be able to go to their dream school despite expenses. College is something that should be the right fit as it is a big life experience not just “next stage of education.” Julianne is right from below there are ways to make it work. Many of these “expensive universities” (Northwestern, Stanford, Yale, ect..) also have the biggest endowments and best financial aid packages. Once accepted, they want you to come to their university so they will try to retain you. This is because a) there is a reason why you where accepted, they like you and b) with less turn over and lower acceptance rate their school looks more elite. There are also other opportunities such as work study and scholarships (If you are able to get into Northwestern you are able to obtain some good scholarships). Not to mention getting a degree from NU or a similar school will likely lead to higher paying opportunities in the future and make it easier to get into a good grad school program.

  4. Our son is a freshman at NU McCormick Engineering. It was his top choice. He got in early action to NU, in addition to UofM and Purdue. We knew the price tag and were shaking in our boots, so we sat him down and told him we would fill out all financials and see what happens. By Christmas NU came back with a package that made it cheaper for him to go THERE then to go to UofM (we’re from MI). UofM give NOTHING! He was out of his mind! Moving him in this fall, He is so happy and Home. My kid did all the right stuff to get into NU and knows the petagree it will give and the doors that will open because he went to Northwestern. It can work, don’t say NO.

    1. My son is trying to decide between Northwestern and UMich. Money is the same for both. I am curious to hear how was your child’s experience at McCormick. Since you are from Michigan, I am Keen to find out if Northwestern holds the edge even in a field like Computer Science.

  5. Hi Lynne,

    Our freshman is at University of Florida, finishing his freshman year. He has done well with straight A’s and joined great clubs. He had gotten into top 20 schools (like Emory and Wash U) but we couldn’t afford and wouldn’t co-sign on loans for him to attend.

    He is studying finance because his major economics has imploded at UF. He applied to transfer to Northwestern University and was accepted. This school has his major applied economics and great companies recruit out of northwestern ( companies that do not even look at UF).

    We are faced with the same situation again! And we don’t want to co-sign loans even though at a great interest rate; however we think this might be a bit different. He hasn’t been stimulated at UF and the company he wants to work for doesn’t look at UF students.

    Would we be foolish to support him in his choice to transfer?

  6. We are in exactly the same situation, our son has very similar credentials from high school and we have the same financial situation. At his top two choices, he got wait-listed (UChicago) and denied (Stanford). The next tier was Northwestern and Notre Dame. He preferred NU, but ND gave him a $25k per year scholarship.

    ND is not a bad school by any means, but it felt as if we were taking NU off the table because of the chance to get a great education for less. We had a talk and he said he would prefer to save some money for any graduate program, rather than taking on loans for undergrad and then having to figure out what to do next if he needed more money. There is still a small amount of doubt that it was the right decision because NU may have been a better “fit”, but I think in the end, it will work out just fine and he will be excited at a ND education.

    Now if he had gotten into Standford or UChicago, I think it would have been a much more difficult decision.

    1. I read your story today with great interest! I must say everyone’s decision is very individual! I DO have a son at the University of Notre Dame (jr.) and had another who just graduated in December from the University of Alabama. My Bama son had three job offers upon graduation and accepted the best one for him in Boston! My Jr. at ND is doing GREAT too! Yes, we have spent a great deal of money for ND (and honestly Bama too as we are out of state) but the VALUE of the Notre Dame education is immeasurable! And the value of the Alabama education has INDEED already paid off too with my son receiving three job offers! Our ND son had an internship Sophomore year and another now for his Jr. year at a major company! The ND brand is WORTH a great deal as are all of the high tier schools! Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise! If either of our sons decide to go on for an MBA (since they are both business majors) they know they are on their own! And it’s ok to let your children do that! My husband and I have made major sacrifices and we both are professionals but NOT rich but all has been worth it! Just my two cents!!

  7. We may be in the same boat as those Illinois parents as our son is hoping to be accepted at both Northwestern and Carnegie, his 2nd and 3rd choice schools. He was deferred from MIT, his dream school, and we are not confident that he will get in on 3/14/15 @ 9:26 am. If he does, this will pose the most difficult discussion our family has ever had to have. He received a scholarship for the University of Maryland, our in-state school, making the cost 50% less a year. It’s a great public university with several advantages, but it’s NOT MIT, NU, or CMU. We anticipate NO financial aid so we are only hoping for special scholarships. I think I will send this to my son in preparation for “the talk.”

  8. We too said no to Northwestern. My daughter knew that if she got in we very likely would not be able to swing it but she didn’t want to wonder. They did offer a “discount” of 12K and the offer letter encouraged us to contact them regarding financial aid so we did. We told financial aid we simply could not afford the $50K price tag. We were told not to worry… That we should attend the admitted students event for her dept and then swing by financial aid. I should have known better. Our meeting netted an additional abysmal $1500 in work study. Thankfully my daughter was as annoyed as I was at how the situation was handled by NU and happily matriculated to Univ of Miami where they made her feel welcome and appreciated

    1. Not sure what happened with your daughter’s financial aid, but I think something went wrong. I’m currently a 4th year (final year) as a Computer Science major at McCormick School of Engineering at NU… I’ve been getting my full demonstrated need with minimal loans. I take on about 13K a year in loans. My parents pay out-of-pocket about 30k a year and the rest is taken care of with grants. Also before people discount NU because of it’s price tag, do note that on average a NU grad commands about 23% more in pay for the same job than other graduates from other institutions (check the NU view book for full details). Not to mention having the most selective companies (ex. McKinsey Consulting, Bain, Goldman Sachs, Google, Boston Consulting etc…), come to campus and recruit. Those companies are rarely seems on most campuses nationwide. This was the major reason why I chose NU over other schools which were essentially free for me to go. Last week we had Google employees (who were also NU alumni) hold a recruitment question and answer session and literarily tell us NU graduates are paid more (ditto for Stanford, MIT, Ivies, Duke, ND etc…) over other institutions. While paying 200k for art school might not be wise, it doesn’t mean all schools with high price tags are not worth it. In my opinion, the NU price tag is worth it just for the NU alumni network that can get you top tier jobs right out of school.

    2. In response to the parent who placed his daughter from Northwestern University to University of Pittsburg with a full scholarship, I’m sorry to read that they did that without seeking financial aid from Northwestern. I hope his daughter does not wish to go to graduate school in the future. If she does she may not be able to get into the top graduate school programs. Many top graduate schools admissions will not even look at an applicant from a lower tiered school. Graduates that leave from top tier schools and then go on to pursue graduate work will be have an easier time getting into other top tiered graduate school programs. A Northwestern Grad will have the doors open to any top graduate schools in the country. But it is tough when one goes down to a lower tier school, sorry to say, that but that is the reality these days. MY husband is a professor at a top tier school, and they will not look at applications from lower tier schools no matter how brilliant the candidate is. They want the candidates to have been taught by the top researchers in the field. Usually the top tiered schools have the money to attract the top researchers in a given field.

      1. I’m shocked that you say that. I actually do not believe it is true. I think that if you work hard and have a good GPA and work experience, you will get accepted. Maybe you have elite bias since your husband works there, but unless you have experience with student loans, it is nuts. My son, who is paralyzed, went to a state university. He graduated with a good GPA and a good GRE, not great. He got into all the grad school programs he applied to and is graduating this May from UNC Chapel Hill School of Public Health, a GREAT school. In addition, my husband has a DMA from Columbia, and his close friend has a DMA from Harvard which isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. And, before you start saying they accepted my son because he has a “hook” guess again, while they might care about race, and sexual orientation, there is NO PLACE ON THE APPLICATION to let them know he is paralyzed, so raspberries to you!

      2. Libby, I’m sorry, but I disagree with you. I’ve been accepted to graduate school programs at Northwestern University and Columbia University, an Ivy League school. I’m completing my undergraduate degree at Western Illinois University. Many of my professors told me that because Western isn’t considered a prestigious university my chances of getting admitted, to the aforementioned schools, were unlikely. If I took their advice, I wouldn’t be attending Northwestern University, the school I chose, in the fall. The notion that a prestigious school won’t accept someone because he or she attended a “less prestigious school” is absurd. The individual’s GPA and overall merit will determine that.

      3. Libby, I respectfully disagree. My husband graduated top of his class from a large state school and received two different scholarship offers from MIT for graduate studies. It’s possible and hardworking, motivated students should apply. Anything is possible.

        We are friends with professors from a couple top tier schools and they have told us that demonstrated character (work ethic, trustworthiness) of students are as imporant as test scores.

  9. Thanks for this great website and another great story. We were pleasantly surprised to find out how much merit aid is indeed out there for highly qualified kids, and to see that our kids will have excellent choices which are AFFORDABLE! We are also having our child attend the school that fits him the best and which fits our budget. Our son is very excited about not touching his college fund — because he wants to get a Master’s degree at the LSE. Our daughter wants to spend her junior year in AUstralia, and with the great deals they got from the colleges they will attend, all this is possible. Our friends who are stretching to send their child to a dream school have already told her no on special summer courses, junior year abroad, unpaid internships on the hill, etc. It’s nice to be able to tell them “Yes, I think we can swing that.”

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thanks for sharing your great story. I would love to know where your children will be attending college!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. I have posted before on this subject, but I think the two families (one choosing between Northwestern and Pitt and one from Nebraska choosing between Barnard and others) have made excellent decisions. Their children are smart and will do well wherever they go to college and will have money left for graduate studies. Living and working in the Washington, DC suburbs, where people are both affluent and well educated, I see successful people in workplaces of all sorts who have come from a variety of college settings. People from the Ivy League and similarly prestigious universities do not have a monopoly on the good jobs/career paths. I’ve been in the workplace for almost 30 years, and time and again, I’ve seen that people who have attended public universities and less famous private universities/colleges on scholarship have done just as well as those from the name brand schools. Especially today, with the cost of some schools topping 250K, I just can’t see how people justify that, even if they don’t go into debt to cover it. A friend of mine who is CEO of her own company (and a Virginia Tech graduate) recently attended a conference for Washington, DC area high level business people, where the keynote speaker pointed out that the public college whose undergraduate business school graduates are most highly represented in the ranks of DC area CEOs is currently James Madison University (JMU) — a fantastic business school when considering both price and quality. JMU is pumping out successful undergraduate business graduates, many of whom are using the money they saved getting a high quality undergraduate education at a stellar price to go on to elite graduate business programs such as Wharton at University of Pennsylvania. By attending top notch publicly supported undergraduate business programs at state university prices in their own state, many Virginia students who make this choice are then able to afford the private, elite graduate business schools, often without taking out loans.

  11. I can’t really add to the discussion at this point, but I wanted to say thanks to PittDad for sharing their story and so thoughtfully answering all comments. Both the post and the comments were very informative about how to go through the process.

    (Not to mention that both these kids also go valuable lessons in making budget decisions.)

  12. Bravo to the father and daughter!

    We had a student two years ago who had her heart set on a nursing major at UCLA. She didn’t get in, but had a full scholarship to UPitt, AND graduate school. The father and mother supported the decision to go there compared to other merit scholarships offered. The moral of the story – when you are offered a gift, take it, and don’t look back.

    As for the Illinois family – you now have the money to help your daughter buy a house when she does finish college and comes home to work. The WHOLE picture is helping your children, rewarding them when they work hard to earn it themselves, throughout their lives, not just college.

  13. In fact, she did.

    Our daughter received an 8k ouside scholarship to attend NU, and only NU. The scholarship is not automatically renewable, so there would be no guarantee that the money would be there in years two, three and four.

    I very respectfully suggest however that relatively modest (when considering the total cost of tuition) outside scholarships would not really address the point of this entire discussion and decision making process. That is, is it worth spending (and/or borrowing in whole or in part) 250k plus on an undergraduate degree from a well known, prestigious, elite university as opposed to attending another excellent university on a full scholarship?

    We chose the latter course as outlined and described above. Many others will go the route of paying the quarter million plus and in some circumstances, portions of that money will be in the form of student loans.

    I certainly don’t suggest that those who choose the former course (spending/borrowing to attend the elite institution) are wrong. I simply share with you our story and the choice we made. We all look at things differently. i will simply say that we can sleep at night knowing our daughter’s future educational opportunities will not be hampered by lack of funding, nor will she be burdened with significant debt.

  14. A provocative story – and I do appreciate the family’s decision-making process and the father’s willingness to candidly discuss the issues, even among the readers’ comments.

    I am curious about one thing — why did the student, with her outstanding work ethic and achievements, not (apparently) apply for some outside (merit) scholarships? I am sure she will do very well and be successful at Pitt, but it seems to me that if she had pursued more scholarships outside of the school realm she would have had more options now. Maybe things have changed a lot since I went to college, but I paid for a large part of my college expenses with outside scholarships (some need-based but not all).

    Nothing at all wrong with going to Pitt, though, and I do commend the parents for not going outside their own financial comfort zone when it comes to paying for their daughter’s college expenses.

    1. Hi Heidi,

      Outside scholarships are a very tiny source of money for almost all students. For many students it’s not worth trying to chase scholarships worth $500 or $1000 that typically last just one year.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  15. For the student whose family chose Pitt over NU so as not to use up her college fund soley on and undergraduate degree, there is one component missing–what kind of graduate degree. If she is interested in a PhD program, the vast majority of good ones are fully funded…so not only would she not have to pay tuition, she would receive a stipend of something like $18,000 per year to do research or work part time as a TA or GA. However, law and medical schools are different and can be very expensive. If this student is planning on getting a PhD, her family could have funded her NU education with no worry about paying for grad school.

  16. Re: Illinois School

    About 15 years ago, I made the same value judgement regarding an undergraduate degree from Northwestern: not smart to break the bank over an undergraduate degree. I would have had to come up with $6000/year after work study and getting a bank loan to pay for it isn’t wise. Instead, I went to a University where I could get in-state tuition. When the time came for grad school, I was essentially debt-free and I got my graduate degree from Northwestern. Once you have a graduate degree, nobody cares what school you got your undergraduate degree from. You just need to be sure the undergraduate school had a decent program for what you studied and that you did well. Good work, Illinois family. She will thank you some day.

  17. I was once in the position of the daughter in these stories. Many years ago, I had my heart set on Cornell, and only picked up enough in private scholarships to cover the first year, with a $13K scholarship offered for the subsequent three years. It would have left me in deep debt after my bachelor’s degree. Instead, my parents had a talk with me about accepting admission to University of Maryland, College Park, with a full merit scholarship that would allow me to graduate with no debt whatsoever (room, board and a book stipend were offered on top of tuition). I, resentfully and with much whining, followed their directive, studied abroad in England, earned two BA degrees, and went on to graduate school… and now I am a university professor at an over-priced private university hoping that I have the wherewithal to be the adult in the room many years down the line for my children.

    1. And excellent example for your own children to follow, and an admirable choice you made. I am certain you will coach your kids on the financial realities well ahead of their choice time so that heartbreak does not ensure, and not wait until they have selected the “dream school” that simply can’t be afforded.

  18. THEN WHY LET HER APPLY IN THE FIRST PLACE????? Frankly, I have a huge problem with the parents in this situation (and not just because I went to Northwestern, a college that still opens countless doors for me every day even though I never would have been accepted by today’s standards…) They probably made no secret of the fact that they’d saved carefully so that their only child could make whatever informed choice SHE wanted to when the time came. If they had no intention of allowing her to go to a school without substantial merit-based aid, they should never have allowed her to apply to ANY school that doesn’t award merit-based aid. Admission to a top tier university is a major accomplishment, but if they weren’t going to allow her to enjoy the benefits of her hard work, they never should have allowed her to apply. Shame on them.

    1. You offer your comments with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight.

      Please keep in mind that 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 dont 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 explaned 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 curremtly 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.

      As far as the “shame” you suggest we should feel, I respectfully disagree. Our daughter is currently enjoying “the benefits of her hard work” in that she will be attending an excellent university on full scholarship. I suggest that in the future she will “enjoy the benefits of her hard work” when she is admitted to the graduate program of her choice without having to worry about how to pay for same.

      Respectfully submitted…

      1. Thank you for such a calm, measured answer. You explain your decision beautifully. Congratulations on the full scholarship. You should be so proud.

    2. Leslie, I disagree. Their daughter gained something through the knowledge that she could be admitted to Northwestern. Our youngest son is finishing his freshman year at a small LAC in Maryland. Intensely interested in politics and foreign relations, he would love to be in DC (we’re from California). He applied to two of the brand name DC schools, despite my warning that if he got admitted, it was highly unlikely they’d give him any money. He chose to throw his hat in the ring. As soon as he tore open the envelope and saw the aid offer of the one that did admit him, he knew it was not a choice and moved on within milliseconds. But he felt validated by the offer. I don’t agree with applying to extreme reach schools “just in case,” but my son wanted to see if he made the grade or not.

  19. Hi Pitt dad,
    Yes, you make a good point. My son is very tight with his limited income, and pretty financially astute, so the idea of spending $50K or more of his own money for college was appalling to him. I admit that he saw the light without much input from me.

    I like the idea that you dangled graduate school in front of your daughter. It’s positive reinforcement, and I’m sure it’s helpful in getting kids to think beyond short-term plans.


  20. Thanks for sharing this story. We had the discussion on how much we were willing to pay for college just last week before planning summer college visits with our HS junior. She was disappointed, to put it mildly, that we weren’t willing to pay $60K per year for her to go to a “big name” university. I forwarded this story to her with the note “another family making a sound financial decision for all involved”. When she got home from school, she relayed the story to her dad commenting on what a smart decision the family had made.

    We are focusing only on schools that provide merit aid opportunities and where our daughter is in the top quarter (or close to) of applicants. It leaves out most of the big name schools that everyone oohs and aahs over; but there are plenty of fantastic schools on the list to check out.

  21. I believe in four years, when the daughter has no debt and many options for Graduate School the wisdom of the parents will be apparent to the daughter. As an excellent student, she obviously worked hard and may be a bit disappointed, but her future will be debt free. What a great gift her parents have given her.

    Also, as a University of Pittsburgh alumni, who also grew up in that fine city, I think the daughter and parents will be pleased with the school and Pittsburgh in general. It’s a great city with friendly, hard working people. She will have many options and opportunities. She should fit right in!

    1. thanks Jeannine

      Our daughter has experienced a sea change since the decision to attend Pitt was confirmed.

      She is wearing her Pitt logo gear on an almost daily basis.
      She’s looking for a roommate on various Pitt related web sites.
      She’s talking about the two dorms she hopes to live in at Pitt.
      She and my wife are working on plans to attend “Pitt Start,” a program for newly admitted students which convenes on various dates over the summer.

      She seems very excited and is looking forward to attending Pitt in the fall.
      She’s smiling.

      I think she is looking forward to her next four years in the Burgh !!

      1. Pitt Dad,
        This is such a great story. Congratulations on instilling financial discipline within your family.

        We employed a similar strategy and our son – who is a rising sophomore in college – has already expressed his gratitude, that he feels not being in debt will really open up his options after graduation. /Gratitude and teenagers don’t always go together, so when you hear/feel her gratitude I’m sure it will be heartwarming.

        1. Thanks Jon….at this point it’s all good.

          Our daughter is looking forward to her first semester at Pitt. She found a roommate on line and they are color coordinating their prospective dorm room. She is also looking at the catalog with regard to a first semester schedule of classes.

          Best of luck to you and your son.

          1. Thanks for the update! I’m glad your daughter has moved on and is focused on making the school she selected a great experience!

            Lynn O.

  22. Ultimately, it was a good outcome for the family whose daughter wanted to go to Northwestern. But it sounds like the parents made the decision for her. I think a better way to go (as you wrote about in your last blog) would have been to educate her about costs, preferably earlier, and let her make her own decision.

    If she understood that it would be her responsibility to help pay by taking out at least $50,000 in loans, how big the post-grad payments would be, how long it would take to repay the loans and how this would impact her life, she might have come to the same conclusion … and gained some confidence in directing her own life.

    1. hi Denise

      The story is about my daughter.

      Generally speaking, I agree with your comments about educating our daughter (in advance) about loans, payment schedules and the consequences of debt. We had that conversation with our daughter on a number of occasions during the 18 monts or so that we were visiting colleges (we visited perhaps 15 or more campuses).

      That said, please know that regardless of any amount borrowed (10k, 100k, etc) our daughter would have readily agreed to same in order to attend NU.

      I have experienced this same situation with other high school, college and early post grad students. The prospect of massive debt and repayment of same has little impact on some (not all) of these young people. I presume since they never had to repay significant debts, the concept of same is simply alien to them. That’s what prompted me to say that my wife and I “had to be the adults in the room” when it came to the matter of incurring student loan debt.

      I recently met a very bright young woman who was about to graduate from a highly regarded Big Ten university with good grades, She wants to go to law school (I’m a lawyer which is what prompted the discussion). I asked her if she had the 150k to pay law school tuition. She said no but offered, “I’m not worried about paying back the loan (for her tuition), I’m worried about getting the loan, ” I suggested that she should be very concerned about such massive debt, particularly in light of the dearth of entry level law jobs in the current economy. I also asked, “What are you going to do if you get married and your spouse has 100k plus in student loans? Do you really want to start a marriage with 250k in student loan debt?”

      I guess my point is that some young people just can’t (or won’t) comprehend the magnitude of such debt and the impact that debt will have on their lives for many years to come. Perhaps that’s why student loan debt now exceeds consumer debt in our country.

    2. Completely agree with Denise. Sadly we have seen the story several times locally in Seattle where friends dropped the bomb/decision on the kiddos after the dream choice acceptance.

      We learned from this and I would recommend the following strategy – when you get the list of dream/match/backup schools that your teenager is considering, spend a Saturday in front of NPC and cost calculators such as Lynn’s. Then lay out how much you’ll pay and what this means for your kiddo in terms of college loans, work-study.

      We did this with our son in October, so when he applied to his dream top-25 school in CA and his match schools in CO and MN he knew that he would be $30-$40k in debt if he chose the dream. He made the decision to go to St. Olaf in MN and he is quite satisfied with HIS choice.

  23. Good for the Illinois’ family on their decision. Students can get a great education at flagship public universities. There also now many honors programs at public universities which can challenge academically advanced students.

  24. “With the cost of college akin to a second mortgage payment for so many families”

    Not so many families have $5,000/month mortgages–which is the monthly cost of the that annual tuition bill. That’s a million dollar home–which sounds like people shopping in an ‘overpriced’ neighborhood and then figuring it out.

    Basically, that there is overlap between the two issues shouldnt be surprising.

  25. We also had to say no to our daughter’s first choice (never use the term “dream school”). She only applied to schools which I had run the net price calculator or which granted merit money. She is also an athlete so that through another ingredient into the mix. She was very excited when she was accepted to her first choice, which had a low acceptance rate, and she could compete. I had run the numbers on the net price calculator several times, even with a higher salary than we earned before she visited and applied, but we received no aid from this “first choice” school. Our daughters are exactly 4 years apart. Her sister graduates in this May. We are not wealthy, but have saved since each daughter was born and can afford $30,000 – $40,000 a year. If she accepted her first choice she would leave college with $80,000 in debt and nothing for graduate school. Due to merit awards her sister is graduating debt free, with a little extra. After “mourning” the loss of what she thought was her first choice school, she committed to a wonderful LAC that awarded her merit money, where the financial aid office has been very courteous to us, where she will receive an excellent education, where the coach is happy and excited to have her and where she is excited to attend. She ordered logo wear and is proudly displaying her mascot! My advice to parents is NOT to rely solely on the net price calculators. You must apply to schools that also award merit money because you may not qualify for financial aid other than loans at some of these schools. Be up front with your child from the very beginning on the amount you can afford, if a school’s financial aid packet comes in over budget take it off the list, and try not to use the term “dream school” use “dream schools” plural that way the child isn’t fixated on one school. Thank you Lynn for your books and blogs which I have used since 2009. Now, can you help us with graduate school advice?

  26. Lynn,

    Great stories. Thank you for sharing. I would have to say that I’m happy to hear that the family from Illinois allowed her daughter to be highly valued and well taken care of by the University of Pittsburgh! After all of that hard work in high school, she going to reap the benefit of receiving a top tier education for next to nothing out of pocket (relatively speaking, of course!).

    What is sad in this story, though, is that this student and parents could have avoided the crushing “talk” so late in the game… if only the family (and families in general) were educated about financial aid before the student had even put a list together.

    This family should have known they would be asked to pay a quarter of a million dollars from schools like Northwestern before their daughter’s Junior year in high school. If they had known that then, they could have worked together to create a more appropriate list of colleges to apply to. By appropriate, I mean schools that would fit their budget and the student’s abilities.

    Even today, too many students are applying to “dream” (aka: nightmare!!) schools without knowing the financial strategy for paying for it. It’s putting the cart before the horse, in my opinion.

    I don’t believe people look for houses in overpriced neighborhoods and then figure out how to pay for it after they’ve bought it… at least they shouldn’t do that!! With the cost of college akin to a second mortgage payment for so many families, they need to understand the net price at a potential college before applying for admission.

    Again, thanks for sharing these stories. Hopefully, they will help parents of Juniors put the fear of debt into their student’s minds now, before they “fall in love with a dream” school. There are plenty of great schools in this country (and beyond) that don’t have to cost an arm and a leg!

    1. I completely agree with Todd! This is a great story, but most parents need to have this conversation before their student even starts looking at schools. It will make it so much easier in the long run!

    2. Pitt is a wonderful school. My oldest graduated from there. Not lucky enough to get the money this child received, but he had a great experience. He applied to NYU after his first year and got into the creative writing program there. The NYU financial aid package was 8 thousand dollars, all loans. We said no way. He was upset at first, but he really did like Pitt. He went back, graduated, the went to U. T. Austin for grad school ( Advertising Program). He is an assistant producer at a big Ad firm in Austin now. He studied abroad while at Pitt, had numerous internships, and was selected as an intern with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences( interned at Fox Sports). I support the decision these parents made! Number two went to really tiny college in West Virginia (she was a very average high school student). They gave her tons of aid, and my husband was out of work when she was in school She graduated, went to grad school in Hawaii got her MSW and has a great social work job in Seattle. Number three is at Niagara University, also has had a good financial aid package, he is doing hotel and restaurant management, has a job in a big restaurant here (in Connecticut) learning the ins and outs of the kitchen right now. Youngest heads to Loyola New Orleans in the fall…. the oldest said “look in New Orleans” as he often goes there to visit friends he made at U.T. (who live and work there). She applied to many schools, Loyola gave her the second best financial aid package (with merit money) and a vist there sealed the deal (first best package gave her maybe 2 thousand more). It is the experience you have, being willing to get involved and go for everything that interests you not the name brand that I think makes the difference!

      1. Ditto! one of my kids just graduated from Pitt, and it also was a distant second choice. They were generous with the aid package, and she got an outstanding education.