By: Genna Grodin
With a new college application season fast approaching, I wanted to reflect on my rollercoaster experience as a high school senior. For background, I am a rising sophomore at The University of Florida (UF) who applied to 11 schools, including private colleges out-of-state, public in-state universities, and Ivy League institutions. Some aspects of my situation were unique, but mostly I had the same decision-making process as thousands of other high-school students. Hopefully, the information I share about my experience can be helpful to any family and student on their journey.
I want to be as honest and open as possible in reflecting on how I approached my decision-making process, including my conversations with my loving and supportive parents. I had stellar grades and extracurricular experiences, so it was worth applying to competitive schools that have excellent academic reputations and whose rigor would challenge me. I built my list on whether I saw each university as a good fit with my academic interests as a finance major. Also important considerations were career-related and personal opportunities. Additional factors included location, size, and, most importantly, affordability.
Considering the above, my top reach school, aka "dream school," quickly became Cornell University's undergraduate business school, the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. I loved how I could be in a small academic program (<150 students per grade) with a significant amount of academic flexibility at a large, prestigious Ivy League institution. I did exhaustive research about their offerings and saw myself as a student there after an on-campus visit. However, the Cornell price tag was hefty for my family, and I knew I would not get sufficient financial aid. Therefore, I tried not to become so attached when applying and had a strong list of schools I would attend in the likely case that, should I even get in, I may not be able to afford it.
My parents openly shared information about their finances and college savings me early in my search process, which is how I knew that it was important to consider cost. I spent most of my senior year applying to merit-based scholarships for financial assistance and earned a few, but nothing that would pay an $80000 education expense per year, which is around what most private schools' sticker price is. They framed as a bribe that if I decided to stay in Florida, we could afford to take more family vacations, or they would help pay for a New York City apartment when I graduate if I choose to live there. Regardless of their joking tone, this was true as my family would be saving a fortune on my education, and the alternative would be needing student loans to pay the $80k/yr. Moreover, I did not need to know the nitty-gritty of what my parents had in assets, savings, etc., at least when I was applying, but what was helpful was knowing that I was not going to be offered need-based financial aid, had a Florida Prepaid Plan paid in full, and a 529 account with an amount disclosed to me. To summarize, the cheapest option would be staying in-state — going to the University of Florida, their alma mater, and a school I had wanted to go to since I was little.
Well, I received more acceptances than I anticipated and had many options to consider. I appreciated that my parents showed me the potential financial burden, but let me build reasoning and still take chances on receiving acceptances. Still, my top for months was Cornell and UF in second.
Eventually, Cornell waitlisted me, and I quickly accepted my offer of admission to UF. I was excited to attend UF; within a week of making my decision, I found a roommate, reached out to clubs and did extensive research on a program that interested me: a combined Master's degree in finance as an undergraduate. I saw high placement rates in Analyst positions, academic assistance for four years from a graduate level, and impressive involvement opportunities that I looked forward to being a part of.
Then my heart threw me for a curveball when two weeks later, I was taken off the Cornell waitlist and offered admission to my dream program. This may sound like a rare occurrence, and it usually is, but many families have this dilemma and quickly go into panic mode because a life-changing decision has to be made rapidly. In this case, I had five days.
My family and I were very happy and proud that I got in to my dream school. But one day before I ultimately decided to go to UF, we discussed how each year at Cornell would be paid for, from taking out retirement savings one year, to selling investments, to missing big milestone celebrations, and most of all, I would have paid for the fourth year completely in student loans. Regardless, my parents were not saying a complete no; they were supportive of any decision I'd make but wanted me to understand the financial implications for both me and them. As a young woman with a huge life choice ahead of her, the reality hit that there was much more to this decision than simply best fit. So I closely assessed my two options with a detailed pro and con list and really found that UF had more benefits and even most of what made Cornell appealing for a drastically lower price.
Today, I am pleased that I made the decision that was right for me. I am challenged at UF, and I receive outstanding academic and career support. I hold leadership in student organizations, have the most school spirit, and created a plan for my future. While it took honest and open discussions with my family to reach my choice, looking back, I probably would have still chosen UF over Cornell regardless of the cost factor. I took away from this process that it is important to make reasonable decisions, and be open-minded to others' advice when they are part of the process too. Debt may not be the same burden or weighing negative factor for every family, and sometimes the best option is not the least expensive. However, establishing clear financial goals and one's priorities for success is crucial for a college applicant and their parents to openly discuss this milestone.