Why I Said No to a Top 20 School

We’re not going to school for the “right reasons”.

image by FlorentLlamas

As a 29 year old woman with a ten year career behind her, I’m not your typical undergraduate student.

Having failed at going to college thrice, academia was the last place I expected myself to be; as in I never thought I would actually ever do it. It would be that thing that I told people was my dream when I had too many drinks (Well that and becoming a touring musician one day).

Some people day-dream about leaving their jobs and working remote on an island…and I happened to dream about going back to school to finish my undergraduate degree. But actually leaving my job, that I loved, seemed pretty much impossible.

Luckily though, life decided to make that decision for me. After the elections in 2016 my husband got a job working on the other side of the country. I decided that this would be the moment that I would actually go back to school. I was nervous to be fully immersed in a school environment after so long. I had only taken a few classes at the community college near my house before and after work for a few semesters before making the jump.

But my fears of integrating back into school were totally un-warranted. With the work ethic that I had developed in my career, the transition to school was comfortable and challenging.

At work I was used to writing reports, and synthesizing data, creating presentations..etc. But on the whole, I was largely writing in familiar frameworks; same reports different days. Not to say that there weren’t opportunities to be creative, but projects in the workplace move so fast, that there is virtually no time to spend thinking deeply.

But school is not like that. School is an ideas playground. Classes demand that students spend time developing their thoughts, and use research to pursue lines of questioning. When I started, I was rough around the edges when it came to writing my opinion for long periods of time (and I still am!). But I got used to it after my first few papers. It’s like riding a bike! For whatever reason, it was familiar, and fun.

All the work that you put into school, you get out of it. Which for many of you, might not exactly line up with how things work in the real world when it comes to your employment. But if you work hard in your classes, you get rewarded.

As I started to develop deeper relationships with my professors, I began to understand that my learning goals weren’t exactly commonplace. I even hear that many students go through college without even reading the books. (My husband said this would be a good joke).

Perhaps because I went into the workforce and not school first, I was less worried about getting my degree and getting out, and more focused on getting the most out of what I was paying for. You can learn how to be a functional human in the workplace, but you won’t have nearly the same amount of time and focus to dive deep into the subjects that interest you when you’re spending 40–60 hours at work.

So when it came time for me to finally transfer from my community college to a four-year university, I felt very confident that I would prioritize my choices correctly when choosing a school. I looked at the university websites, looked over all the classes, and researched the faculty that would be teaching them. I read the mission statements of the schools, the departments, and even the blogs of the senior leadership to see where I would apply.

After an anxious three months, I finally received the news that I got into all the schools I had applied to; and at the last possible minute, I got off the wait-list for my top school choice. I was ecstatic… and shortly thereafter, frantic. Financial aid packages came trickling in, and much to my dismay, my top school was going to be almost twice as expensive as my second choice.

Getting into my top school turned me into a min-maxing monster. I fell into the same mental trap that most students these days find themselves in when deciding which college to go to: Instead of asking myself, where I could get the most out of my education, I asked myself what school would might me the biggest socio-economic advantage later in life. Gotta pay off those student loans right?

It was like all of the values that got me into the school in the first place went out the window. All of my research was reduced to looking up salaries of people that graduated from the schools I got into. How much of their success had to do with where they went? And how much of mine would be defined that way? And why did I suddenly care about this?

I started my college quest sure that I was motivated for the right reasons, but I became ashamed of my behavior. When presented with the bill, my school wasn’t about academics anymore, but about where the school could get me financially in life.

The two traps that I fell in had to do with my attachments to identity and socioeconomic status. Saying that I was a top 20 student, in my mind, gave me access to a brand that promised a certain type of lifestyle. It guaranteed that people would know exactly what sort of person I was, how intelligent I must be for going to such a prestigious school. And how the piece of paper from that school would look on my piece of paper.

The other low that I sank to was only considering money as having value. Putting all of the responsibility for my own success in life on the school I went to for my undergraduate was like ignoring my whole life path thus far.

I became nervous that I needed to make a more “adult” decision. I then saw college as the gatekeeper to social mobility. Having come from a family that did not pursue higher education for any other reason than moving out of poverty, college wasn’t exactly looked at for“growing one’s self”. It’s an oportunity to move out of your conditions, and do better than your parents. Hopefully.

Seeing it that way was not wrong; it is a very accurate depiction of reality. “Everyone knows” that going to better schools means that you will make more money. At least that is what we keep telling ourselves and our kids. This idea that we have to get into top schools to make it in life reinforces the social class structure divide. (This topic deserves more discussion, I will write more about it later).

My life has never followed a “traditional” path. Going to a top 20 school tempted me to pay a lot more money to skip the line in life. And that’s just not who I am. I have never had a brand to rely on, just hard work and character. Education is to learn, to grow, and to shape oneself into who it is that you want to be.

Success is walking away with a great education, and great relationships with the close knit group of professors that I get to see almost every day for the next two years. Success is going to a school that allows me to prioritize myself during my degree, and after.

When someone asks me where I went to school, they might now know what that school is. And that’s ok. Because my success for other’s to judge me isn’t going to be what school I went to for my undergraduate degree, it’s everything that comes after.

I leave you with this quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.”