Colleges and universities have personalities of their own. Some conjure up images of scholarly learning, while some are known more for their hard partying than their academics. And many high school students feel fiercely attached to at least one of them. But don't get carried away with your preferences: know that no matter where you attend college, the experience you have and the job offers that will follow, are up to you.
Most of us go to college to have a better life, meaning a professional career and life-long friends. But just how important is the institution where you choose to get that degree? Sure, Ivy League schools, the Yale's and Harvard's of the world, carry a status that employers find impressive and assuring, especially if they themselves went there. But I will argue that a case a can be made for a state university or local college --if you're willing to be an active participant.
Compare a student at an Ivy who does nothing more than attend class and get good grades with another student with equally good grades at a state or local university who becomes an editor of the campus newspaper and a student leader who regularly converses with their professors. Which student would you bet on? When it comes to launching a career or applying for graduate schools, activities, experiences, and networks count more than you think.
The ugly reality of not being accepted or being denied financial aid hits hard. But don't despair. You have options. You can have an amazing, productive, and worthwhile higher education experience no matter what the scenario. Here's how:
If you didn't get in to any 4-year college, try community college, daytime or nighttime while you work and save your money. You could decide to stay and get your Associate's Degree. Or if you have your eye on a four-year degree, you can make a smart decision and start racking up general credits for a fraction of the price you would pay at a four year institution and with an unusually fine staff of instructors. Then, after one or two years, you can transfer to a four-year college where you have to continue developing yourself. Remember, no matter where you are, you're still writing papers that interest you, talking with professors, and developing success skills. Don't get into bad habits or feel like this is such a second-rate option that you don't have to work the same. Community colleges present unique opportunities. As in everything in life, it's what you do that counts.
If you get in, but money is the do-or-die issue, dig deeper in researching scholarships. Consider a college that offers a co-op program like the pioneering Drexel or University of Cincinnati where you alternate working for a semester with going to school. You can find others too. Search online. Or, consider taking out a loan and applying for programs after graduation like Teach For America, which in some states, will reimburse your tuition.
Consider low-cost colleges that you may have overlooked. For example, Alverno, a women's college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has superior rankings yet costs relatively little. Kentucky's Berea charges no tuition because of its full participation work-study program, where students are required to work at least 10 hours per week in campus and service jobs in over 130 departments. Both the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and The Cooper-Union School of Art in Manhattan offer free tuition for all its talented students.
Some universities will allow you to attend for free if you are an employee. While you may not want to work in the maintenance department or wash dishes in a cafeteria, it's certainly a better option than not going to college at all.
If you get into a mix of both more expensive private schools and less expensive state or locals, consider your options carefully. Your decision will depend on your family's financial situation and whether or not you can get financial aid. I don't want to disparage private schools with fantastic and enduring reputations, but I do want to encourage you not to let the institutional name mean everything. In our uncertain job market, going to an excellent state institution and graduating with little or no debt is really smart. And, if you are thinking of graduate school in your future, keep in mind that it is even more expensive and that you may not be able to stay local.
If you didn't get into that one school you've always dreamed of, calm down. Go to the school that accepts you. If you work hard and get involved, you might apply to transfer for your sophomore or junior year. However, you may find that even though it wasn't your first choice, you actually come to like the school you end up going to if you make friends, engage in activities, and get the most out of your classes. You may just choose to stay.
College is what you make of it. No matter where you end up, learning the mega-skills--taking full advantage of the resources available to you, making connections, and involving yourself in activities in and outside of the classroom-- will give you keys to your success.
Make your luck happen!
Author of Launch Your Career in College