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What It’s Like To Turn Down An Ivy League Education & The Life That Comes With It

“Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.” — Raymond Chandler

I was 17 when my parents sat me down and laid all their cards on the table. At the time, I was trying to decide between attending college in Canada, where I could pay domestic rates, or the States, where tuition was three-to-four times the price. I had gotten accepted into prestigious schools in the U.S. Chicago. Berkeley. Columbia. Dream schools.

That’s when my parents broke the news: they couldn’t afford to send me to the States. They opened up about everything: how much savings they had in the bank, how much debt they were carrying, how much they still needed to save for my brother, and how much they could realistically afford for my education. They gave me a choice: I could stay in Canada, and have the majority of my education paid for (after scholarships), or I could go to the U.S., and take out loans to make up the difference. More importantly, they broke down the consequences of each choice.

In the first scenario, I would come out of college with zero debt. In the second, I would be like most of my peers, struggling under the burden of debt after graduation. It would be a decade or more of, essentially, indentured servitude. They asked me what price I would put on my own freedom. What was the next decade of my life worth to me?

Was I devastated by what they told me? You bet. I was furious. Who turns down Columbia? Are you kidding me? But the two paths my parents laid out for me were clear; I couldn’t deny the logic.

Looking back on it now, that level of transparency was the best thing they could’ve done for me. It couldn’t have been easy for my parents to share their financial struggles with me. Imagine the shame they must’ve felt to tell their kid they couldn’t afford to send them to their dream school. But you know what was more important to them than their own ego? Their son knowing exactly what his options were.

How can we, as millennials, ever learn to make good money decisions if nobody’s ever shown us what our options were?

I ended up graduating from a top Canadian school with zero debt, and was lucky enough to get a well-paying job straight out of college. Since I knew the financial strain my parents were under, I ended up paying for the last two years of my brother’s education so that they could start putting more towards their retirement. Isn’t that what a family is for? No secrets, no shame, and a willingness to face our problems together. To share in the burden of life.

Maybe I’m being too much of an idealist. Maybe I’m imagining a perfect world where every family can get together to sing kumbaya around the open communication campfire.

Sometimes I imagine the life I could’ve had. What if I had gone down the path that most U.S. millennials were forced to go down? I would still be in debt today. I would’ve taken the first job offered instead of holding out for the one I wanted (or thought I wanted). I wouldn’t have quit my corporate job to pursue writing full time. I wouldn’t have a two-year fuck off fund. Worse, my brother would probably have followed me to the States, and gotten into a similar amount of debt. My parents wouldn’t save enough for retirement. My brother and I wouldn’t have enough to take care of them.

And on and on goes the cycle.

I read articles like “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans” (from The Atlantic) and wonder what if. What if the writer had told his daughter he would have to clean out his 401k to pay for her wedding? Would his daughter have let him do that to the family? Her family.

More so than knowledge, I think the lack of communication around money is one of the core issues facing lower-to-middle class families today. And it seems like the more troubles a family has, the less inclined they are to talk about them. But how do we learn anything if everyone’s afraid to address the problem? To move past the shame to something more constructive? The problem doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it. We’re just kicking the can further down the road.

Instead, why not take the first step and start with something we can control?

In the coming days and weeks of the new year, sit down with your families or significant other and share everything you’ve been afraid to tell them about your finances:

1. What am I struggling with?

2. What worries me about the future?

3. What steps am I taking to address these issues?

Ivan is a writer based in Los Angeles. He and his wife run a minimalist lifestyle blog called The Origami Life. It tracks their progress to September 2018, the month they plan on selling their worldly possessions and embarking on a global search for the simple life.

Image via Pexels

  • nicolacash

    Obviously getting out of college debt-free is the dream, but if you REALLY wanted to go to Columbia that badly, I feel like a 3rd option that I know some people do is 2 years at a basically free community college (during which you can work part-time to save as much money as you can), and then transferring to a big name school for the remaining 2 years. That way you graduate with the same degree as everyone else but with half the debt

    • Anni

      Are you still eligible for scholarships this way? I ask because the author is not American and I was also a expat undergrad student in America. In the school I went to and many others, the huge scholarships like my $27,000 / 70% of tuition scholarships were only really given out to incoming freshmen. There’s no way I could’ve afforded school even for two years (where I suspect a cheaper college would’ve put me academically behind) on something like $2000 in scholarships a year at a school where annual tuition alone is close to 30k no matter how much I scrimped and saved, especially because the USD is worth more than the currency where I am from.

  • Jack

    It’s so awesome to hear the honesty that your family share with each other and the willingness to help everyone out. It makes me so mad when I hear 30-somethings still taking giant monetary gifts from their parents who have no retirement savings.
    Sorry you missed out on those schools though 🙁

  • kirstmas

    We need more articles like yours! Most people think if they spend a bunch at school that it’ll be the magic bullet and solve their future. Graduating with no debt will put you further ahead than any fancy degree (trust me, I stayed in Canada and had no debt too) and it’s alarming seeing people mortgaging their futures.

  • lateshift

    sorry, long post here, but I have to say it: just have to throw in a reminder that turning down an Ivy League university is far, far more likely to be the smart option for a foreign student (such as the author) than an American one. Foreign students are generally expected to pay full tuition, while the degree of financial aid available at elite institutions for the majority of American students whose parents make less than six figures is enough to make the average cost to those students comparable to the out-of-state tuition at a decent state school (or often much lower.)

    Those big student debt numbers people freak out about aren’t the norm at big-name colleges. That debt hits students at for-profit and certain trade schools hardest, in terms of the percentage of students who choose that option who wind up affected, and the amount of debt they’re left with; a very distant second is students at public institutions, for various reasons; and bringing up the rear — way back both in terms of the percentage in their group who wind up affected, and the amount of debt — are the relatively small slice of students at selective colleges who fall in the narrow band where they’re too well-off to qualify for the most generous aid but not wealthy enough to be able to afford tuition without some real sacrifices. And “selective colleges” here DOESN’T mean the Ivy League, where schools generally have the endowments necessary to be able to offer far more generous aid packages than institutions that haven’t been around as long and/or don’t tend to have a disproportionately wealthy alumni base.

    I mention all this because the simplistic, inaccurate notion that an Ivy League education automatically = the most debt just because the LISTED tuition (which few actually pay) is the highest, and that the responsible/financially prudent thing to do is generally to just go to a good state school or community college, is what often keeps the most talented lower- and middle-income students from even considering elite schools in the first place, and helps freeze the 1% in place. And the tragedy is, it’s based on an assumption that’s both facile and flawed — but those from a less privileged background (which includes me. And no, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, though I did attend a selective one) might not have people in their lives who are aware of that fact, and able to set them straight. I know I didn’t.

    Not that this author is trying to steer anyone wrong. She’s just presenting a situation that probably won’t apply to the overwhelming majority of the people reading this — people who might not realize that fact, and who would likely draw a much greater benefit, financial and otherwise, from an Ivy League education and peer network over a lifetime than any simple tuition price tag could convey (and far more than any already-wealthy student would receive from the some experience.) If you know a deserving, underprivileged U.S. student, for god’s sake tell them to ignore this essay completely and apply to the college of their dreams. For 99% of the middle class students reading this, an Ivy League education is both objectively affordable (yes. really), and well worth the investment.

    • The Origami Life Blog

      I couldn’t have put it better myself :). You’re correct that as an American, an Ivy League education “could” make sense with the right amount of financial aid and scholarships. It also very much depends on what you’d like to study in college. I think my caution here would be not to select something simply because it’s “prestigious.” Thanks for the thoughtful response! Nuance in the comments section pleases me. -Ivan

  • Katherine MacGregor

    I really appreciate this article and his perspective. I have a couple of friends who went through the same decision-making process recently, regarding grad school in the States. As a Canadian, I think it’s important for me to mention that many students here struggle with debt, too. It generally isn’t on the same scale as Americans but it is definitely still something that is a BIG barrier for students from lower middle and low income families (or with no family support at all) in terms of accessing higher education. Unlike the author, most Canadian students do not graduate debt-free (the average debt upon graduation is currently ~$25 000CAN).