I’m Not Going to My Pricey Dream School & I’m Still Happy

In most teenagers’ lives, the agony of waiting tends to be limited to moments that are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial: waiting to find out if you passed a math test, for your crush will text you back, to hear if you got the lead in the school play, or even to get a letter of acceptance from a college.

For Delilah Moore, a high school senior in Maryland, it wasn’t any of those things that led to the torturous waiting period she dealt with in late March. It was something far more consequential. On the night of Friday, March 25, she hardly slept, because on Saturday morning she’d find out just how much student loan debt she’d be in for the next several years of her life. At least, she’d find out how much debt she’d have if she decided to attend her dream school, which had just accepted her earlier that day.

“For those 24 hours or something I was going crazy,” she said. “I knew it would come down to the money.”

The day after her acceptance into Oberlin College, Moore would receive her financial aid package. She had already done the math, and it wasn’t pretty. All the other colleges she had applied to gave her no financial aid, and she knew she could only count on $10,000 a year from her parents, so Oberlin’s $64,000-a-year price tag (at least for next year) would easily put her in six-figure debt for an undergraduate degree. Moore wants to major in history — which isn’t known as a field of study with high earning potential — and she wants to go to graduate school. Basically, while she wasn’t sleeping that Friday night, Moore was hoping for a financial aid miracle.

Moore gave up on trying to sleep around 5 a.m., when she started refreshing her online applicant status page, waiting for the financial aid update. She watched Netflix to pass the time until 6:30 a.m., when the page finally changed.

“They were relatively generous,” Moore said. The “relatively” is important — even after an $18,000 scholarship and $5,000 grant, she’d have roughly $41,000 to pay for her first year. If that stayed constant for four years (unlikely), and her parents contributed $10,000 a year as planned, she’d still have to come up with about $124,000 on her own. Even though Oberlin offered her much more aid than any other school, it would still be the most expensive, by far.

“I wanted it to be worth that much money. I really wanted to justify the cost,” Moore said. But when she compared the numbers from Oberlin to what she’d pay at her state school option, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, it didn’t make sense. “Is it really worth $100,000 more debt to get the same degree basically? Especially because I’m probably going to go to grad school. The more and more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘OK come down to earth.'”

She submitted her $500 deposit to St. Mary’s in early April.

The Financial Aid Time Crunch

One of the things that frustrated Moore the most about this decision was how little time she had to make it. Unlike the rest of her college preparations — working for good grades since freshman year of high school, choosing AP courses, taking campus tours and deciding where to apply — this one happened so fast, and very last-minute.

“You have like four weeks,” said Kevin Fudge, manager of consumer advocacy & government relations for nonprofit American Student Assistance. Fudge has more than 15 years of experience in the financial aid world, and he said it’s always been like this: Students and their families talk about college for years, but they only have the hard numbers in front of them for a few weeks before they have to make a major financial decision. Many colleges have a May 1 commitment deadline, but they often don’t send out financial aid information until late March or early April.

Once they have the numbers at hand, they’re not easy to crunch.

“There’s people with advanced degrees who get confused by the difference between a loan and a grant,” Fudge said. “There’s no uniformity to the financial aid letter. Some schools will put Parent PLUS loans in the letter, some will put loans in.” Others don’t.

In short, it’s really confusing. It’s the sort of confusing that makes it easy to commit to a school without really understanding what that will mean for the finances of students and their families once they leave school.

“These are just things that are not explored enough to make informed decisions as consumers,” Fudge said. “In an ideal world, somebody would have been thinking about this four years ago, but most people don’t.”

‘It Came Out of Nowhere’

Moore wasn’t thinking about student loan debt four years ago. Still, many people would consider her one of those students who did everything right as she prepared for college. She got good grades, earned AP credit, did well on the SAT, took courses at a community college and applied for many scholarships. As she started getting financial aid letters, she realized everything everyone told her would matter in her college decision was nothing compared to figuring out how much debt she could handle. Up until that point, she thought each of those moments — choosing classes, waiting for her SAT scores, deciding where to apply — was the most stressful of all. Not really. It just seemed that way because the test scores, the AP classes — that’s all adults ever focused on when talking to her about college.

“I think it was more stressful, because it wasn’t something that was hammered in from the beginning,” Moore said. “It came out of nowhere so very quickly, and it became so very important so very quickly. Everyone tells you no one pays sticker price, but that’s not entirely true.”

She ended up choosing St. Mary’s because the school accepted more of her AP credits and community college credits than Oberlin, so she’d be starting college with roughly three semesters of credit under her belt. Not only is St. Mary’s cheaper in general, the credit acceptance will allow Moore to graduate early, if she wants to. That’s a huge money saver. In the end, Moore said she realized it would have been irresponsible to go to Oberlin and take on so much debt, given her other options.

When asked about that — that it would be irresponsible for a student to go into six-figure student loan debt for a history degree from Oberlin — Debra Chermonte, VP and dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin sent this email statement to Credit.com:

“Oberlin College provides financial assistance to more than 80% of our students and meets 100% of the demonstrated need of every eligible student. The College is predominately committed to providing need-based grant support to eligible students. In cases where a family’s self-determined budget differs from the institutional and federal assessment they may decide to apply for additional federal and private loans outside the college’s recommendation.”

Private student loans often require a co-signer for the student (often one or both parents) and a credit check, making them a difficult option for families who may have low credit scores. (You can check two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Of course, it’s all a personal decision. Moore decided she wasn’t OK with what she’d have to pay at Oberlin, even though she desperately wanted to go there.

Fudge, the financial aid professional, said he encourages students to talk to people in their planned fields of study if they’re having trouble making decisions about what to pay for school.

“Ask them, ‘What would you do in this position?’ The majority of the time, the elder would tell the younger to choose the most cost-effective option,” Fudge said. That’s what Moore did. She posted about her dilemma to Reddit, where the resounding response, from history professionals and others, was to avoid debt as much as possible. She said it was very helpful in her decision.

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