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Student loans and financial aid: How to save $23,000

Too many people say, "Oh, I'm not going to apply to Harvard. Even if I could get in, there's no way I could afford it." This is wrong. Read Anya Kamenetz's guest post about student loans, financial aid, and higher education to find out why, and to see her simple advice: "Apply to the most expensive schools you can."

Ramit Sethi

When it comes to student loans, financial aid, and higher education, everyone’s got an opinion. They just usually happen to be wrong.

When I was in high school, it drove me crazy to hear people saying things like, “Oh, I’m not going to apply to Harvard. Even if I could get in, there’s no way I could afford the tuition.”

This is wrong. In fact, if Harvard accepted them, these very people would likely have to pay nothing. But people don’t understand that. Like naive car buyers, they truly believe that “tuition” is what people actually pay, and are predictably too intimidated to even apply.

My friends who didn’t apply to these colleges are perfect examples of people who do the job of rejecting themselves before anyone else can reject them. It’s sad, because many of the people who think this way simply don’t know any better.

In reality, almost nobody pays the full sticker price.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money

Here’s my 10-second background so you know where I’m coming from: I grew up in a middle-class family with immigrant parents and 3 other siblings, got into Stanford (where I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies), and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

But even if I hadn’t won a single scholarship, my financial aid would have required me to only pay single-digit thousands per year for a Stanford education.

That’s why it’s aggravating to read people, especially anonymous online commenters, who persist in advising students to apply to community colleges and state universities for financial reasons. That’s nonsense. If you want to go to your local university to stay close to your family, or you prefer a smaller school, fine. But don’t blame it on money. It’s just not true.

3 notes about applying to expensive schools

  1. If you’re good enough to get in, top-tier universities will take care of you. Yes, “if you’re good enough” includes incredibly complex socio-economic connotations, but we can’t address them all here. I simply want to highlight the mistaken belief that money is holding students back from attending top-tier colleges because of tuition costs. No. It’s not. If you’re good enough to get in, top-tier universities will take care of you, financially.
  2. Your college is not a technical school. It’s not only about how much money you’ll make once you graduate, like so many people try to claim. There are ineffable qualities to being surrounded by an extremely high caliber of peers. I’m not even saying, “Go to a top-tier university” (although I think you should). Just apply to them.
  3. Tuition should be one of the last decisions you make. Stop thinking about the money up front. First, focus on getting into the best schools possible, whatever that means for you. Once you secure admission, worry about the finances. Remember, if you’re good enough, the universities want you there, and they have hefty treasure chests to ensure that you matriculate.

Harvard dean: “….Never allow a lack of financial resources to stand in the way of reaching for their first choice college…”

The curious aversion to student debt is at once irrational and understandable. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t take on $40k of debt to attend Chico State. But I would easily pay $40k to attend a top-tier school like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale because of the education, caliber of peers, and opportunities available at schools like this.

Yet the constant drumbeat of “avoid student debt” produces some funny thinking.

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews asked the provocative question, Do You Know a High-Achieving Student Kept From College Because of Money?. Not one person could provide an example.

As William R. Fitzsimmons, the Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid, writes, “Promising students should never allow a lack of financial resources to stand in the way of reaching for their first choice college.”

Always, always apply to the best schools you could possibly get into.

Does a more expensive college mean it’s better?

It’s important to address whether “expensive university = better.”

My take: Not always, and “better” is different for everyone. But can we stop being politically correct for a minute? Yes, expensive universities are often better than less expensive schools. At Stanford, I met people I could have never otherwise met. I had access to resources that few other colleges could equal, and experiences that few other colleges could provide. I learned an entirely different way of thinking.

The point is this: People assume that more expensive colleges are out of their reach, when in reality, if you can’t afford much money, you’re the very person who should be applying to expensive colleges.

That’s why I’m thrilled to run this guest post from Anya Kamenetz, who has simple advice: “Apply to the most expensive schools you can.”

To find out why, read on.

* * *

Anya Kamenetz: How to save $23,000 in student loans

The average bachelor’s degree recipient graduates with $23,200 in student loan debt. But that is mostly preventable. Here’s one way to avoid it:

Apply to the most expensive schools you can.

Colleges are like airlines. The person in the seat next to you may be paying a fraction of what you are for the same ride. Too many people focus on the published sticker price, which makes public colleges seem more affordable.

The problem is that public colleges are broke. Broker than they’ve been in decades. They’re raising tuition and cutting back on their programs.

If you have good grades and test scores, and you have a special quality a college is looking for, you could end up with lower debt at a more expensive school.

Total grant aid to both undergraduate and graduate students increased from $43.4

billion) in 1998-99 to $61.0 billion in 2003-04 and $76.4 billion in 2008-09, in constant dollars. As you can see, institutional grants—money that comes from the college itself—is the largest source of grant money for college. Almost half of the new grant dollars over the past five years were from colleges and universities themselves.

(image via the College Board)

A private college with a big endowment is likely to offer a more generous package of grants and discounts than a public university—in fact, the most expensive private colleges cover about 40% of the cost to attend for students whose families make $60,000 or less.

You don’t have to be poor to get financial aid, though. Quite the opposite. A 2006 study of major research universities found that they spent $171 million on aid to the poorest students—those whose families made less than $20,000 a year. At the same time, they spent $257 million on financial aid for the richest students, from families earning more than $100,000 a year. To look at it another way, between 1995 and 2003, grant aid from those same universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533 percent, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120 percent.

(Image via the Education Trust)

I met Olabisi when I spoke at her high school in the Bronx. She was a very high-achieving student who had immigrated from Nigeria. At the time she was comparing financial aid offers from SUNY Binghamton and the University of Pennsylvania. She showed me the financial aid letters. SUNY’s offer was for her to take out $4000 of loans a year, at a public university ranked 80th among major universities college that costs $14,898 this year. That’s $16,000 in loans, total. The offer at U Penn, an Ivy League school ranked 4th in its category in the US News and World Report rankings, was for her to take out $20,000 of loans a year, for a college that costs $35,916. That’s $80,000 in loans total.

And then there was Middlebury. With the second highest tuition in the country, at $42,910, ranked far above SUNY and roughly equal to U Penn (#4 in the category of Tier 1 Liberal Arts Colleges.)

Here’s what she wrote me a few weeks after we met:

“I got great news…I’m going to Middlebury this fall. Middlebury offered me $41,810 in aid with $36,060 in college grant, $4,000 in Perkins loan and $1,750 in work study. I am so excited that I will be attending a college with less worries about the amount of debt I will be in after four years. My family contribution is more than $2,000 and it will be $200 on a monthly payment.

This is great! Middlebury said that I cannot take any more loans from them and every student is only allowed $4,000 in loans. I’m very happy too because today, I graduated a valedictorian!”

More than 30 of the most expensive private colleges, including Amherst and Claremont McKenna, have adopted no-loan policies over the last few years. That means if you get accepted and you meet their income requirements, they pledge to meet your needs with grants and work-study instead of student loans. Some colleges have had to pull back on the no-loan guarantee because they are taking severe hits to their endowments, but a richer college is still more likely to be able to work with you to limit your overall loan burden, just as Middlebury helped out Olabisi.

Here are some strategies for maximizing your financial aid package:

1) Fill out your FAFSA form as early as possible. You may be able to get help on this from a tax preparer such as H&R Block on an hourly basis.

2) Don’t apply early decision—it includes a commitment to attend if you are accepted, which means you can’t negotiate.

3) Apply to a larger number of schools: 10 to 15 rather than 5 to 7.

Once you get some financial aid offers, here’s an awesome website that can help you decode your financial aid letter. They break down real financial aid letters and explain them in plain English.

Now you’re ready to get a better deal.

Colleges don’t take kindly to attempts to hardline “negotiate” on a financial aid package. Instead, call the financial aid office and ask to speak to a financial aid officer, or even better, ask for an in-person meeting. Here’s what you should say to the financial aid officer:

“I want to let you know about some personal circumstances that have changed for me or may not be reflected on my application:

  • My relocation costs to move xx miles to this college.
  • Recent unemployment, or illness.
  • Other personal hardships for you or your family.
  • Because of the CARD act, I will not be able to use a credit card for personal expenses.
  • Because of lenders dropping out of the student loan program, I haven’t been able to find private student loans.
  • A common problem: although a stepparent’s income is listed on my application, they are not contributing to my education.
  • I believe that I would be a valuable addition to this school’s community for the following reasons: (Same stuff you said in your personal statement).
  • This school is my first choice, but I am entertaining other very attractive offers, and I need to make a decision.
  • Is there any way that you could take another look at my application for financial aid?”

Good luck. The best financial aid packages go to those who are persistent.

Read Anya Kamenetz’s new book, DIY U, for more strategies on crafting a personal learning path that is affordable and relevant to your future.

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  1. avatar

    Hi, I’m getting ready to apply to grad school. Could you please do a Grad School edition of this post? It’s super helpful and you’ve done a great job assembling this info here. Wish I’d had this when I was applying for undergrad. Would love to know this stuff for grad school. Thank you!!

  2. avatar
    Andrew Barbour

    Well, as a U of A grad (undergrad and law school), I take some offense here. Not *too* much, however, because you would be right in thinking there are plenty of partyboy/partygirl jokers majoring in sociology or something equally useless simply in order to get a good Arizona tan.

    But don’t forget that mega-schools like U of A and ASU accommodate a wide variety of students, and can attract some pretty damn good ones by having an enormous budget for certain programs (U of A’s space sciences and nursing programs, for instance).

    For those who will not get into the Big Name schools, or do not get the scholarships, a Big Size school is a very reasonable alternative. First, state schools are generally cheaper than private schools. Second, if you can get in-state tuition, you can get an even better deal. Third, large schools like U of A tend to have– *gasp*…dare I say it?– community colleges as feeder schools. If you’re not getting scholarships, there’s no point in spending thousands of dollars on your Intro to Calculus or Economics 100 course. For your gen ed requirements, knock them out at the community college at a fraction of the cost. Don’t imagine that over on Campus they’re unraveling the mysteries of the universe. For basic classes, it’s the same stuff. I promise you.

    In the case of Arizona, it’s hard to get residency. So what do you do if you’re not a resident? You take your first two years of courses at Pima Community College and earn your residency during that time. That means you set up local bank accounts, car registration, insurance, lease, voter registration and pretty much everything else *on the day you arrive.* Then, a year or two later, you transfer in as a state resident. Even without scholarship money, you’ve shrunk your tuition costs by an enormous amount.

    But what if you are a resident? You do the same thing anyway because community colleges also have in-state rates.

    Anyway, at least in the case of law school, your college does not matter. Harvard and ASU are equals on the resumes of law school applicants. What matters are grades and LSAT scores. Rock those and you can go anywhere. And law schools don’t even wait for you to apply for scholarships; many compete for the good students by throwing scholarship offers at them. I had an offer of a full scholarship from one school, but chose a partial scholarship at U of A instead. But there were a few 4.0/180 LSAT types that took up U of A’s offer to come for free, and we had a hell of a sharp student body.

    So, in summary, even if you DON’T get scholarships, it’s not the end of the world. You can still minimize costs if all you want is an education–and not who gives it to you.

  3. avatar
    Smarter Spend

    This is one of the most informative posts on your website. I graduated from UCLA with only $8k in loans by being able to secure various financial aid packages.

    I, too, have experienced friends and relatives not applying to their favorite schools out of the fear that they would have to pay whopping sums of money. The truth is, the more expensive private schools tend to help out a lot more than public schools.

    My single important advice for students is to follow what Ramit said and not apply to schools based on the cost of education. No matter how you look at it, a quality education will be the single best investment you will ever make. Follow your heart and merits to your dream school.

  4. avatar

    My husband and I went to the same Top 30 liberal arts college. He was a top-tier student, and as a foreigner, got a free ride for a 5-year dual degree program.

    I was desirable, but less so. The school made it possible for me to attend, but only just. I have $18,000 in federal student loan debt, and my parents have debt as well, but we both believe the caliber of education and opportunities I got there make it worth every penny. They encouraged me to go to my alma mater as opposed to a lower tier school that gave me a free ride. And, given that tuition and board at my school are around $45,000/year at sticker price, I’m happy with how much we paid.

    I also worked my ass off to graduate with my BA in three years. In addition to saving me and my parents a lot of money, it also made me really stand out in the eyes of my professors and peers, which was to my benefit when it came time to ask for letters of recommendation.

  5. avatar

    That’s well and good… What I want is a way out from the crazy student loan debt I married into. From what I’ve read, you can only refinance that debt once, and she’s already done that.

  6. avatar
    Mike P

    The key point here is that if you are a top tier student then most universities want to find a way to get you. The grade point average is also only part of the story. I find that the high schoolers around here that do things in the way of community involvement seem to be the ones that have the easiest path to the top schools. Our class president got into the Air Force Academy, his grades were not stellar but our local congressman knew his name just from him being involved in different activities around the area.

    Even if you are not perfect on the ACT or SAT and valedictorian there are tons of scholarships out there, even for 3.4 slobs like me. I got most of my education funded from a scholarship from my high school. All I had to do was maintain a 3.0.

    Even after you start college you can pick up scholarships, or internships. I was amazed at what you can learn from your professors just talking for 5 minutes after class or during office hours. A lot of good companies will have a professor directly recommend a few students for internships instead of holding an on campus interview and trying to weed through 50 applicants.

  7. avatar

    Great post on cutting down on student debt. Another factor to consider for student loans is lifestyle inflation. Dave Ramsey spoke to a college dean and he mentioned that the average student paid about $5k more a year on ‘upgrades’ for housing and meals.

    Budgeting and prioritizing is another part of your education.

  8. avatar
    Steve O

    I was one of those students who didn’t apply to Ivy League schools because I didn’t want to throw away an application fee for a school I couldn’t afford. I wasn’t avoiding rejection (let’s just say there wasn’t any doubt about a school accepting me); I honestly thought it was impossible for a lower-middle class Midwesterner like me. I wish I knew you in high school.

    P.S. Got a free education at a state school and now I own my own business, which is starting to generate serious income after 6 months.

  9. avatar

    Very nice post, Ramit!

    If you ended the post in the middle, it still would have been a post worth reading.

    Olabisi’s story strikes a chord with me in particular because when I was in high school I didn’t know any better and only applied to Binghamton!

  10. avatar

    Ramit is back. The first half is what brought me (and I would assume a lot of readers) to this blog. The recent spat of entrepreneurship has not been doing it for me. Guest post was alright but it is really something I have known for a long time–it bothers me when qualified people don’t even look to the top and then end up spending as much (or more) as I paid post-financial-aid at a top school on some mid-level state school.

    I was equally appalled at some of my roommates who didn’t even bother to fill out and submit the fafsa. I wish they had seen some of those figures on aid to students with higher income families.

  11. avatar

    I second Miki’s post. I earned my master’s from Northwestern, with a tuition sticker price of $48k/year. I was able to take advantage of a drop-in-the-bucket scholarship, and now I can waive my Perkins loan as long as I can prove that I’m working full-time in my profession.

    However, I’m dreaming of moving on to a doctorate. Considering that I’m paying back about $100k combined for a bachelor’s & master’s, the idea of adding to that debt is a pretty sickening feeling.

    (And by the way, coming from a blue collar family, I made the decision to attend my community college on a free ride for two years – highly recommended – and moved on to a private university which provided me nearly $18k/year of scholarships – just for being a transfer student. AND it didn’t ruin my life as I had thought it would, and it didn’t prevent me from getting into the best speech pathology program in the nation, either…).

  12. avatar

    I went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (a state school) and don’t regret it at all. I went there for very specific reasons. I wanted a top engineering program – electrical engineering specifically. I knew I didn’t want to go to grad school. I planned to go to work straight out of school and I wanted hands on experience. The “higher end” schools I had been looking into were geared towards people going to grad school after and required lots of classes I wasn’t interested in taking – liberal arts stuff. I remember the Harvey Mudd rep bragged that liberal arts was 1/3 of their program for engineering students. Dude, why did I want to be an engineering student? I’m over that AP English, History, etc Also, Cal Poly gave me credit for those AP classes – other schools just expected you to have them. Other reasons: Cal Poly has small class sizes – I was in maybe 4 classes with over 40 people my whole college career. …and Cal Poly’s motto: Learn by Doing! Tons of clubs and professional organizations. The Society of Women Engineers at Cal Poly wins awards every year at the national level. School isn’t just about the classes.

    On the down side state schools as recently as 10 years ago had 2/3 of their tuition covered by the state… now that number is already 1/2 the tuition and dropping. At the end of my sophomore year is when the budget crisis really started hitting to the point where less classes were offered – that sucked! I’ve heard through the alumni network that Cal Poly (and other state schools) are taking on fewer student this year. My education was totally worth it and I’d go there again even if tuition had doubled, but there is a lot in flux right now.

    What I’m trying to say here is there are good reasons to go to a state school — don’t just do it for the money. State schools have different priorities (less research for instance) so if those priorities fit in with what you want out of your education go for it! Its like picking a job based on the highest salary alone – you probably won’t get what you’re really looking for.

  13. avatar

    I don’t want to put down local/community or state schools, but when it was all said and done I paid much less for a degree from a great in-state liberal arts college than my sister did to earn her degree from a local non-residential state school. Much, much less. We graduated at the same time with similar degrees… I walked out of my school with a lifetime of connections and a job with a group of alumni, and she walked out with twice the student loans and sore feet from waitressing her way through school. Call it survivor’s guilt.

    Staying in state is really the best advice, even if it means establishing residency (as noted above)… but private financial support makes all the difference in the world.

  14. avatar

    I wish I had known this sort of stuff–I considered some other schools, but in the end, I was too scared to try and thought we couldn’t afford it anyway. Luckily I was in the top 1 percent of my class and had easy entry into a great school (my state took top 10 percent without fail) with a great journalism program, but the only scholarship I got was one awarded to me from my PSAT scores–I didn’t do any work to get it, I got a letter one day saying it was awarded to me.

    It wasn’t so much laziness as just not knowing how it worked–both admissions and scholarships. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so obviously I never looked into it.

    Why don’t they teach this stuff in all of the stupid AP classes I took? No, instead the required HS class is health, taught by a coach. What a waste of time.

  15. avatar

    I agree with you on most of your points (though theoretically I didn’t go to college with a scholarship–my parents had a college fund for me that was prepared since my birth and we didn’t qualify for financial aid).

    However, a lot of your points are a bit school-elitist. Yes, I went to a university that is historically top 20 (now solidly in the top 10) but I realize that not everyone is as academic as I am.

    “The curious aversion to student debt is at once irrational and understandable. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t take on $40k of debt to attend Chico State. Actually, I wouldn’t pay $10 to go to Chico, and I would rather send my daughter to a Chinese prison for than the 4-year gangbang that is ASU or UofA. But I would easily pay $40k to attend a top-tier school like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale because of the education, caliber of peers, and opportunities available at schools like this.”

    I agree that going into debt for sending a kid to a mediocre school is counterproductive. However, what are the alternatives? What if your kid happens to be good at X, Y, and Z, but not good at math, science, history, bleh, blah, and CAN’T get into Stanford, Harvard, or anything else in the top 20 or even 100? The quality of education at some schools are lower than at others, but I don’t think that it means you can’t excel at a state school at all and that a ‘bad’ school gives you a useless education. Now, that’s for state schools, but what I don’t get is people who send their kids to bottom-tier private liberal arts colleges (40k+ per year!).

  16. avatar

    Sorry for double commenting, but @Miki

    There are a lot of posts on the internet about graduate schools, but the bottom line is, if you’re getting a masters, only get one if the career path you want REQUIRES it. There are only a handful of scholarships for masters programs, and paying lots of money for an optional degree is a complete waste.

    On the other hand, if you’re looking for PhD programs, almost all programs will give you money if you are an attractive candidate for the program. Science programs will pay you 20-30k a year with waived tuition (usually a flat rate for all students depending on school), and even a lot of liberal arts programs will pay you (based on my friends, anywhere between 5-30k, depending on how awesome you are at what you do). Overall, for a PhD program, I would NOT go unless you are paid a stipend–if the school can’t afford to pay you and needs to collect tuition from you, it probably isn’t one that is ‘respectable’ enough for the time/effort for a PhD to be worth it.

  17. avatar
    Erica Douglass

    Perhaps if your parents don’t make a lot of money, you can easily get financial aid. But if your parents make a lot of money, schools don’t seem to have a lot of sympathy. I applied (and was accepted to) Santa Clara University, which is a great school. Only problem was even then, in 1999, they wanted over $30,000 per year to attend. I filled out a FAFSA, but my parents’ income was far above the level required to get a scholarship. In the end they offered something like $2,500/year in financial aid. And this was a college that mentioned prominently once you were accepted that no one paid the list price–well yeah, because they offered like a 7% discount.

    Most of our local scholarships (I’m from Indiana) were need-based, too. In the end, I went to San Jose State instead, partly for financial reasons but mostly because Santa Clara didn’t let me pick the times of classes as a freshman and I wanted a PT job at the same time.

    I dropped out after a year and a half and don’t regret my decision.


  18. avatar
    Erica Douglass

    Here’s another story from my past that doesn’t agree with your article. Again, I’m from Indiana. And I went to a gifted and talented, residential (oddly,state-funded) high school for the last two years of my school.

    The grading was ridiculously hard, but they had a program set up whereby if you graduated that school, you were guaranteed admittance into any state school. Nice perk–Indiana has some good schools (Purdue and Indiana University are both excellent.)

    But the school was full of overachievers and tons of students applied to Harvard, etc. I had a friend in this school who actually applied to Stanford (and it was her #1 choice.) She had recently appeared on “Jeopardy”. She got top grades and took the hardest classes.

    Stanford rejected her, explaining in its letter that it prioritized people from California. (Ramit–were you aware of this bias? Did you realize where you live has such an impact on what colleges you get accepted to?)

    My boyfriend-at-the-time was rejected from Northwestern, his #1 choice, because of “low grades” — well, this school grades hard but sends a letter with each application explaining that they grade hard. Only problem is, the colleges have no way to deal with that. They just look at “GPA” and if it’s too low, they don’t accept you.

    Huge complaints from parents on that one.

    In the end, probably 90% of the students went to an in-state school because of the guaranteed acceptance. One kid did end up getting accepted to Stanford and going there. ONE. Out of probably 25 who applied…and these were top-tier kids taking multiple AP classes who had to pass an IQ test just to get into this high school.

    You have no idea what it’s like for kids who didn’t grow up in California. No offense.


  19. avatar
    Ken Siew

    Very cool post. I definitely should have applied for more scholarships back then but I didn’t. Students out there (or to-be students), shoot for the best you can get, after all there’s no harm trying right? Except for the application fee and some writing, but I think it’s totally worth the shot.

    Bookmarked and shared this post on Facebook/Twitter. Thanks Anya and Ramit!

  20. avatar

    My first choice college was USC. I ended up going to a state university. USC was honestly too expensive to contemplate. The expected cost of attendance is around $52000 for out of state students. Even with full tuition on the table, I’d still be paying $17000 out of pocket. So instead of going to LA, I’m in the Midwest paying a few thousand per semester max. Did the money impact where I went? Definitely. The financial aid office won’t help upper class students, contrary to the information listed above. The FAFSA calculation of my expected family contribution far exceeded what my parents could pay; my dad is a Ford early retiree.

  21. avatar
    Andrew Baber

    In addition to scholarships, make sure you check out things like TA programs.

    While in school at BU for hospitality administration I worked as a TA for the culinary classes (2x/week for 4hr each) and they knocked 50% off my tuition. Well worth it — not only did I get real-world experience in running a kitchen and teaching peers but I saved ~$17k/yr.

    Granted, this assumes you have enough experience to actually do the TA work but for those who do it can be a huge boost.

    The funny thing was that I didn’t even really have any competition for the position. During my campus tour (pre-application) they were asking who had culinary experience because all their current TA’s were graduating and they had none lined up for the next year.

  22. avatar

    I don’t think anyone should go into debt for a Bachelor’s degree, mostly because it is the new high school diploma. Graduate degrees are what set you apart, and lots of state schools have good financial aid and graduate programs comparable to lots of the better private institutions. My PhD at UA was top 5 in its field, and the program I work for now at ASU is also top 5 (different field).

  23. avatar

    Maybe you should take a look at Cal Newport’s website Study Hacks ( Apparently having really very AwEsOmE grades isn’t the “it” factor. I wish I was exposed to his material years and years beforehand but I was too damn busy reading books, sucking up in class, and then suffering severe senioritis.

  24. avatar

    I meant to direct my last post to Erica since Ramit already knows Cal.

  25. avatar

    I went to the same high school as Erica of comments 17 and 18. (Indiana doesn’t have that many public boarding skills, so this is easy to figure.) And then I went to the same school as Ramit for undergrad and an MA. In fact, two of us from my graduating high school class went to Stanford out of I think 6 total from Indiana that year. I don’t want to be too harsh here, because we all know there is some element of chance and countless behind the scenes things that go into admissions…but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the “ridiculously hard” grading of a given high school for precluding opportunity. Firstly, admissions counselors (at schools that go behind formulaic admissions practices) are generally aware of the best schools in the region for which they control admissions. Secondly, having attended this school with “ridiculously hard” grading I think that maybe if it feels that ridiculously hard, then a top-top-top school isn’t the best fit.

    It has always bothered me that out one of the best high schools in my home state, almost everyone stays in-state for college. Yes, there are good public schools there, but there is more out there that is attainable and affordable via scholarships and loans. I saw many of our top students easily swept up to a couple of universities because of good merit scholarships (Wash U comes to mind), but beyond that there seemed to be a lot of complacency.

    For me it was super easy to weigh a virtually free Indiana University education against about $10k in loans per year for Stanford.

    Ramit, another cost saving tip for college: prioritize classes to meet graduation requirements. I personally finished my BA requirements almost a full year early without compromising on taking interesting courses or taking advantage of the University’s various departments. This let me go on to “co-term” and get that Master’s degree at an added cost of only $8k.

  26. avatar

    Great post, Ramit! Quick follow-up: It’s all fine and good to reduce tuition (direct cost) to virtually nothing, but any thoughts on paying for the indirect costs (eg: rent, food, etc) while living as a student and not taking a paycheck for several years?

    Specifically, I’m a part-time student in Villanova University’s MBA program in suburban Philadelphia. I had GMAT scores high enough to be competitive at Wharton, a mere 20 minutes away…but I didn’t even apply because they have no part-time option and I would have had to have gone two years without taking a paycheck and (presumably) would have racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt just to pay for basic necessities during those two years. Seems like a common situation, as about 80 percent of MBAs are earned on a part-time basis.

    I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything by being at a good program (Nova) versus a super-elite program (Wharton)–the content is basically the same, my classmates are rock stars, and the value proposition makes so much more sense to me. But I bet there are a lot of people who would like to leave the workforce for a couple years to attend a super-elite program without ruining themselves financially by foregoing a paycheck. And simply negotiating a lower sticker price on tuition seems like only half the equation.

    Any thoughts on how to deal with the other half?

  27. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Scott: The other half is expected earnings. This is especially true with an MBA, which is closely related to your job and income. You take the publicly available data and calculate the average income of graduates from X University vs. Y University. Sometimes — when it comes to top-tier b-schools, I would argue, virtually always — taking on extra debt makes financial sense because your income increases disproportionally. But as you point out, there are other considerations besides the numbers.

    All good comments today, and I’m especially enjoying the back-and-forth with Erica and Kate.

  28. avatar

    Thanks for the quick reply, Ramit! You’re the man!

    Personally, I would still find it difficult to incur an certain loss ($40k-$50k of debt plus the opportunity cost of not working) for an uncertain gain (post-degree salary, which is unknowable before the fact). But I guess it’s a leap of faith either way because the time cost (two to four years actually completing coursework) is far higher than the dollar cost, and impossible to recover.

    Anyway, thanks again for a very thought-provoking post and a quick reply!

  29. avatar
    greg kramer

    speaking of 4-year gang bang…didn’t Tiger go to Stanford 🙂

  30. avatar


    Great post! What if you’ve already made the “mistake” of going through an $80k Professional MBA program, and just graduated in a bleak economy?

    I’ve realized the poor decision, and now I have to deal with it, but the student loan debt can be crippling.

  31. avatar

    …it is risk vs reward.

  32. avatar
    Ben Casnocha

    @Ramit #27 — that may be true for b-school, but it’s not true for undergrad. There is no lifetime earnings difference between a guy who chooses to go to Indiana University over Stanford (if he applies to both, for example). Are there other “soft” benefits to going to Stanford over IU? Maybe at the margins, but not close to going into $10k debt a year. I would never advise someone to go into debt for an undergrad degree, no matter what the school.

    It’s true that the rich schools have the money to help pay for your education. But the vast, vast majority of people cannot get into those schools and they are applying to less famous private colleges, among other places. These colleges which do not have money to splurge on aid. That’s why the rule of “don’t worry about money” doesn’t apply to most people. And what’s why the “don’t go into debt for undergrad” should be a principle more strongly espoused.

  33. avatar

    Sadly, none of this applies to International Students…have to take private loans or pay cash.

  34. avatar

    This was a pretty good post, but really there’s so much here that can’t be captured in a single article.

    First of all, one thing I have learned as a hot shot grad student with a 3.8-4.0 average whose university flies him out to present papers at conferences and works full time in his field of study is… I am not at all unique. Everyone else is equally impressive. It’s crazy, but there’s so much difficulty in trying to distinguish yourself from your peers at any university any more it’s insane. I’d like to suggest more stuff about how to be unique in your peer group somehow, which IWTYTBR sort of goes into at times but never directly for students.

    More on this point, there are alumni of my small university who are huge players in various industries. I’m talking about people who make seven and even eight figure incomes. The point being they’re just as good as anyone else, it’s not the name on your diploma it’s what you do after you get it.

    On an industry forum I read a lot, someone typed up a long list of people in senior positions at the leading companies who went to universities you’ve never heard of, like College of the Redlands.

    Second of all, remember there’s really nothing special about any population of students, so all the best students can’t possibly go to the “best” school. That the highest accomplishing students at university X are so much better than those at Y I just don’t swallow especially in light of things I just pointed out about what people with no name degrees often accomplish.

    Third, the main advantage of many schools is non financial, something the post kind of touched on, but for a given individual the non financial benefits of a “bad” school may be tremendous. I for example am kind of limited by geographical proximity because I have an obligation of a non financial nature I just can’t renege on right now. It’s a bit complicated to explain so I’ll leave it at that.

    Fourth, I find this kind of inconsistent with other posts. One thing I like about this site is the focus on big easy wins. I hate to tell you this, but I’ve been around a lot and I mean a lot of people who aren’t willing to do anything at all to improve themselves. We’re a culture of people who seem to hate accomplishment sometimes, especially in lower socioeconomic status groups. It’s impossible to get some people to go to a 2 year junior college for an associate’s degree. If you can motivate your butt to go to any university, that’s a big win, and if you pick one that’s maybe easier to get into, or one that’s smaller or conveniently located for you, that just makes it a big easy win.

    Fifth, I don’t go to Arizona State but I am seriously considering that I could go there for 3 years and land a $130,000 a year job easily without even trying. I probably won’t do that because the kind of work I could get does pay a lot but it works out to a very meager wage per hour plus 3 years of opportunity cost, but come on, a guaranteed six figure income for 3 years of work isn’t bad.

  35. avatar

    I wish I had this advice when I was in High School, I was too concerned about the big debt I would have to take on. I did earn my EE degree at Michigan Tech in ’05 which is a decent school. I applied to every scholarship possible and made really good friends with the people at the Financial Aid Office, so thankfully I’m only 2 years away from being student-loan debt free.

  36. avatar
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  38. avatar

    I agree with Kate #25 : It isn’t fair to blame the “ridiculously hard” grading of the school. And, to address her second point, it probably was not a good idea to attend the school if you couldn’t keep up. I do not mean this as a personal attack towards Erica, but I felt that getting into Indiana Academy was too easy. That’s one of the reasons that I decided not to go there.

    I also was already at one of the best high schools in the state, so that was a factor in my decision to stay put. More than half of the people in my graduating class decided to stay in state.

  39. avatar


    My husband is Malaysian and got a free 5 year ride for a dual degree at our Top 30 liberal arts college. It’s possible. You have to be really impressive, or fill a specific niche the college needs (like my husband did), but if you do, the money will appear. I’d suggest seeking out smaller, lesser known, but good colleges with regional, not national reputations, Many are looking to increase their diversity and the number of students in math and science fields. International students are often capable of doing both of those.

  40. avatar

    This is really really great advice — not necessarily to GO to a top tier school, but to at least apply and make your decision from there.

    I did not go to a top tier school myself, and my life has turned out great. So obviously I think a state school is an ok choice and you can do well with it.

    But not even applying or considering them (and yes, mostly due to financial reasons) was a mistake. I wish I read this blog post way back then. You are dead on — I rejected myself from them before they had a chance to reject me.

  41. avatar
    Emma Chace

    I went to my state university for my undergrad because it was free, but got a competitive score on my GMAT. I’ve applied for an MBA and been accepted to Bryant (1st choice, and also can live with family while I’m going there which is a huge plus), but I have to send them a large deposit before they consider me for their assistantship program which would cover full tuition. I guess I’m just having some psychological issues letting go of this money to find out if I could get an assistantship. However, at the end of the day, I only would have to take out $25,000 to go, so maybe it’s worth it. The problem is Bryant doesn’t offer much aid outside of this assistantship. I could also attend just a state school, which is less $$, but ultimately not a negligible amount, and I think I would regret not spending the extra $2-$5K to go somewhere better. Anyhow, this post has given me some support that I should go for my first choice and not the cheapest.

  42. avatar
    Olivia J. Lin

    Dear Ramit,

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for everything you’ve done for us readers. You’ve seriously impacted all of our lives and improved the world.

    I’m really thankful to have great role models like you and Tim Ferriss. And this article especially helps me because I am a Junior in High School right now.


  43. avatar

    What about those of us in Canada? I’m attending a small private university in Canada, but I would LOVE to go to Stanford or UCSB or another prestigious university just for the experience… but tuition would be double for me.

  44. avatar

    This is a fantastic post. I wish I had the same advice when I first started out! I didn’t let tuition price tags stop me, but could have definitely benefited from a few tricks to negotiate tuition. Now I’ve got bachelors and masters degrees under my belt and $70k in (principal) loan debt. I tell myself it’s not bad debt to carry…even though I’m sure I’ll carry it to my grave.

    I wish more young people knew that stewarding their personal finances is a lot easier than it seems. Having a Ramit (or taking a personal finance class) sure would’ve helped 10 years ago!

  45. avatar
    Sydni A.

    First, As an ASU graduate and employee and a current U of A grad student, I am offended by your accusations that our schools are substandard. Yes, we have reputations as “party schools,” but we also have excellent rankings in several of our programs.

    Secondly, my main issue with the financial aid systems is that they consider your parents income, whether or not your parents are going to give you a dime for education. They also look only at the income and assets of the parents, not the debt-to-income ratio. I qualified for very little in assistance because my Dad made about $100,000 a year. None of the scholarship or government assistance programs looked at the fact that he has a business mortgage, home mortgage, car payments, and many other financial commitments. They also don’t consider how many other children my parents might be expected to put through college. They may have been able to scrape enough together for my first couple years, but with three more children heading to college in the next few years they couldn’t have done that for everyone.

    I had nearly perfect grades in High School, was involved in many extra-curricular activities and had excellent test scores…and I was accepted to 4 of the 5 schools I applied to (Stanford was the only one that didn’t want me). But the only school that offered me ANY money was ASU (I didn’t apply in my home state because I wanted to leave).

    You make good points, but they only apply to people with a certain level of need. If your parents make above $60k, they better have been saving for your education from infancy. Since we cannot control how our parents manage money, I find it unfair that students in this middle income level don’t get more assistance.

    It’s ridiculous when you hear about how many low-income students don’t attend college. Because, as you said, they can go for free! I applied for plenty of scholarships, but nearly all of them take into account the level of need, so students with poorer parents get them. I won’t even get into the fact that non-white students have special scholarships and financial aid available, as well as affirmative action on their side when it comes to admissions.

    Anyway, I think you are incorrect in saying that students can hope to graduate without incurring debt. Without student loans, I would not have been able to attend an out-of-state school and would have been stuck in a tiny South Dakota college.

    So put down the community colleges and state schools all you like, but for people within a certain range of familial income, it’s that or massive student debt.

  46. avatar

    I agree with Ramit & Anya that IF you can get an “elite” degree for cheap, why not do it? (That is, unless you’re another Bill Gates or Michael Dell, in which case school would be a waste of your time).

    BUT, I disagree with Ramit & Anya on getting the “elite” degree IF it means taking out huge student loans, for the following reasons:

    (1) Attending a “higher-quality” college does not significantly affect students’ early career earnings (

    (2) A college education may not be worth as much as you think. (

    (3) The “college premium” number is meaningless unless it’s broken down by field of study and student characteristics (

    (4) As the cost of going to college increases, the purely financial cost-benefit analysis becomes non-trivial (

    (5) Even a Ph.D. in Engineering from a “top school” is no guarantee of a job in this job market (

  47. avatar

    Ramit hits the nail on the head with this post: if you think you have the qualifications for a top tier school don’t disqualify yourself because you think you can’t afford it. Let the schools disqualify you over academics, but don’t disqualify yourself over money.

    Many top tier schools have had a policy that 100% of applicants receive 100% of their assessed need for at least 35 years. I learned about this policy as a junior in high school, trusted it, applied to top schools, and got accepted. (On the advice of counselors I got some of the app fees waived, they still do that too).

    The offer sheet included generous grants, a little loan, and work for me. My family couldn’t come up with any of the family contribution (meager as it was), and MIT worked with me: they reduced it some, and I agreed to work more in summers. I didn’t know whether it was possible, but trusted that if other people were doing it I could too. Most of us did — in 4 years I had an MIT degree and very little in loan debt (under 1200/year in 1978 dollars).

    My quals were pretty shiny, but so were many of my classmates. My sister was, I think, typical of many top grads. She believed herself more world-wise; the same counselors couldn’t convince her to make the leap of trusting a top school. She ended up at a local state school, took extra years to graduate because she was working, and left with crippling loans. We are in very different places in life now, and might not have been so different.

    I was pretty lucky in these undergrad experiences. I had GREAT counselors in high school and was just naive enough to listen to them. MIT, typical of top-tier schools, intends that you finish. Many state schools intend to wash people out.

    My grad school experience was rockier. Better advice and more of an inclination to listen on my part might have helped. I’m looking forward to reading anything Ramit posts on how to do grad school better. I concur with what I’ve read in the comments: if you are at all competitive, don’t do a PhD unless you get someone to pay for it, end especially don’t pay for it yourself without understanding what’s available and what it will lead to. If you’re not independently wealthy there are consequences to “doing it for the knowledge” that you want to think through carefully, preferably with a spreadsheet. Compromise may be in order.

    It’s interesting that the same naivete and focus on tight short-term budgeting that got me through undergrad became a serious disadvantage during grad school.

    PS If you were lucky enough to get a ride through school, contribute to your school and help someone else get through.

  48. avatar

    Excellent post, Ramit. I second the first comment about doing a related post regarding graduate school.

    I just got accepted into a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania but they don’t offer any graduate assistantships in that particular program. I’m looking into loan forgiveness options (I’m going into public service) but I’m terrified of getting strapped with $100,000 in student loans after I finish my Masters.

    I now have to make a decision between going to a less reputable state school that costs 1/4 as much as UPenn, or taking the risk and hoping I get my enormous loans forgiven. I’m looking into scholarship options but it seems much harder for grad students.

  49. avatar

    This all jives with the best piece of advice that I’ve ever heard in relation to these types of things. It applies well to college and the job market.

    “Go where they want you; not where they’ll have you.”

  50. avatar
    Shelah Marie

    I am so glad a friend forwarded this article to me. I have recently been accepted to NYU, I applied without thinking about cost — and to my surprise, I got in! After the initial joy of being accepted into my dream school and program, I then got very nervous thinking about price.

    I could be wrong, but it seems that there are less scholarships and aid for graduate study? From my research thus far, a majority of the available funding comes from the university or that specific program. They have offered me some funding, but I still have a long way to go.

    I will be eligible for work study my second semester and have saved up some money but in looking for that supplemental funding I have fallen flat. I’ve done endless online searching but so many of the scholarships are only for undergrad.

    I have hope and will still keep looking but any advice you have for a student in this predicament would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance,

  51. avatar

    Perhaps for certain people of certain circumstance attending Ivy League schools having that “top-tier” school on their resume helps them earn considerably more, but I’m not convinced. I think who the person is and their ambitions (and how they work to accomplish them) is much more important when considering long term income potential.

    I considered Brown and Harvard. With financial aid, the cost was down to what I’d pay for in-state tuition. Not bad, but that doesn’t consider higher living expenses, additional travel expenses being so far from family, etc. However, if I went in-state, I could get enough scholarships to cover tuition AND room and board and living expenses. And, full disclosure, I made money off college. I walked away with probably about $20k to invest, versus having student loans. (Side note: I got multiple additional scholarships dropped in my lap for maintaining high grades in college, so I always advise incoming college students to keep their grades up.)

    Is Harvard on my resume? No, but at this point into my career, in my field, no one pays attention to that part of my resume anyway.

    But, I definitely agree with your first point: People often underestimate the financial aid they can get from an expensive school. So, if their dream is to go to Harvard, then they should go for it.

  52. avatar

    The military reserves as an option as well. I did this and MADE money by going college. I did was as you advised Ramit. I applied for those top schools and applied relentlessly for those scholarships, and I joined the AF reserve.

    The result was 80% of my costs were covered by scholarships and grants. In addition to that I worked one weekend a month for the military. Because I was in school I was eligable for education benefits. All this translated into me working one weekend a month (16 hours) and taking home $1200. Which translates into $75 dollars an hour. Not a bad sum for an 18-22 yr old living at home with mom and dad. During the summer for my feshman and sophmore years I went “voluntary activation” for 3 months Mid May – Mid July and made $4,000 a month, and still had time to have fun with friends. Junior year of course was for internships.

    As other commenters have said, I would like to see you touch on Grad school, particularly if your working full time. Before I became happily unemployed as I am now, my firm PwC paid for Grad school, but offered paid leave to do it in exchange for commitment to the firm. A sort of indentured servitude if you will.

  53. avatar

    great discussion but i just wanted to echo the comment from post #47:

    If you were lucky enough to get a ride through school, contribute to your school and help someone else get through.

    (this is especially important now – school endowments are suffering in this economy too. please pass on the amazing gift of education that was given to you)

  54. avatar

    A truly inspiring article. I liked what you said about applying to the best school possible. I am going for Wharton and hopefully I get in. Is a reach for me, but at least I applied and won’t ever regret not applying.

  55. avatar

    Private colleges often have more money to give away than public ones. Drexel University ended up costing less for my son than Virginia Tech did for my daughter because their grants were so generous. Don’t go by the published costs when deciding where to apply.

  56. avatar

    @Rahul #33: Not true. As said before, grants from the school (but also organizations and sometimes even alumni) will be there for you as long as you have the skills, resume, or the like.

    I personally can contribute to this with a story from my professor. He is from the midwest, but applied to Stanford. Got so much grants from Stanford that it was cheaper than his instate-midwest university.

    For international students, like I am, there is another solution: go on an exchange. pricetag: my home-university tuition (which for Utrecht University is $2000), and I am doing an academic year @ UW-Madison. (not top-tier, I know)

  57. avatar

    i came back to check out some more comments.

    I have to add that I disagree with the overly optimistic “lots of top schools will let you come for free!” idea — I really do not think it is so simple. But it is just silly to disagree with the advice to at least apply. The application fee is worth it, even if the tuition ends up not being worth it.

  58. avatar
    Writer's Coin

    Classic Ramit: “…I would rather send my daughter to a Chinese prison than the 4-year gangbang that is ASU or UofA.”

  59. avatar
    Anya Kamenetz

    Thanks for all these comments, guys. Whether you apply to an expensive private school or a state school, undergrad or graduate school, it makes sense to think seriously about your debt burden.

    If student loans are on your mind, I’ll be conducting a live video Webcast on the subject at the Brazen Careerist website this Thursday, April 8, from 8-9 pm, covering:

    * How to limit debt before it starts
    * How to best deal with repaying your debts
    * How to craft a “personal learning path” that is affordable, accessible, and relevant

  60. avatar

    Great post. Just to offer another real world example to back Ramit up… I’m from a middle class family and went to Yale. When I tell people they almost always ask as a follow up “Whoa. You must have tons of student loans.”

    Actually, not at all. I graduated with 9K in student loans… all I did was fill out my FAFSA and applied to a crap-load of schools. I got into a bunch of them and leveraged financial aid offers to go to the school I wanted to go to.

    Definitely agree with the “Don’t apply early” thing. You don’t any bargaining power if you do that…

    Great post.

  61. avatar
    Barbara Saunders

    I had friends at Stanford who attended there because the financial aid package was much better than the one offered by (public) UC Berkeley. My total loan amount was less than other friends who went to San Francisco State. Yes, the elite schools take care of students. It’s part of their whole brand and business model.

  62. avatar

    Excellent post & something I’ve been trying to tell students I worked with in West Philly. Great comments too; I noticed the people saying that they went to a state school & it worked out well for them had also considered other options and eventually decided on the place that met their needs. I think that’s the point of this post – consider a lot of options and don’t be limited by the perceived cost.

    One thing to add: in addition to having (probably) fatter endowments, top tier schools tend to have fantastic financial aid staff who will find you scholarships. Mine worked hard to match accepted students with philathropists who had very specific ideas for the students they wanted to grant scholarships to, and they have access to alumni donors who aren’t on lists the general public can find.

  63. avatar

    Apply to a larger number of schools: 10 to 15 rather than 5 to 7.

    I definitely did this. My friends thought me crazy to pay all those application fees, but I ended up with several options with various levels of scholarships. My dad did not want me to apply for financial aid since he automatically assumed that he made too much money. But I still ended up with some scholarships. The minor amount you spend in application fees will more than make up for the options that will open up.

    I’m not even saying, “Go to a top-tier university” (although I think you should). Just apply to them.

    I especially love that line and whole-heartedly agree. So many of my friends without money just didn’t try and went to state schools although they had SAT scores in the 1500-1600 range (back when it was out of 1600) and great GPAs. Some came from big families where there were 5+ kids. Some just knew their parents didn’t have the money for it and didn’t want to burden them with trying to make ends meet if they got into that “top-tier” school of their dreams. But you’re absolutely right that those schools will give help!

    …meet your needs with grants and work-study instead of student loans

    That’s great and definitely true, since many student loans percentages are atrocious, but there are still many schools where you will still need to get a portion of the money from student loans. And in many states, financial aid officers still get paid to refer students to specific loan companies. What I learned: make sure to read the terms. Here are some questions I learned to ask:

    * When does interest start accruing on my loans?
    Some loans start accruing while you’re in college while most defer to when the repayment period begins.

    * When do I have to start paying back the loans?
    Some loans have grace periods, often from 6 to 12 months after graduation while many require payments immediately after graduation.

    Do read the terms and take the time to shop around for loans. is a decent place to find several loans at once and compare them side-to-side online. You can also call around. I definitely found that it ranged greatly not only in rates but things like deferment and grace period. I was worried at first that it would hurt my credit score to have my credit pulled by so many places, but then found out that the credit bureaus EXPECT you to shop around for loans so multiple pulls within a few months don’t hurt your score at all.

    That said, commenter “David”‘s route with the military reserves was a route some of my friends took and is still a good option, depending on future career goals and area of study.

  64. avatar

    Thanks for this very inspirational post especially for students who are in the mindset that you have described. Rejecting yourself even before the schools take a look at what you can offer limits one’s opportunities in many levels. Students should stay open to many options.

  65. avatar

    life style is more important. in my point of view, it is not easy save money by this way. however, if we have good plan, we may cut down students dept.

  66. avatar

    I remember hearing the legend of colleges giving out free money when I was in high school. I knew at the time I would be majoring in some field of engineering. I ended up applying to three schools, all highly rated: Georgia Tech (public in-state), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (public out-of-state), and Carnegie Mellon (private out-of-state). I got in all three schools but didn’t end up with any significant financial aid from any of them. I was a good student with high SAT scores (high 1400 when it was out of 1600) and extracurricular activities. I remember seeing the expected family contribution and thinking that was an insane amount of money for my parents to provide.

    I ended up going to the in-state school, Georgia Tech. Any college in Georgia gives in-state students what essentially amounts to tuition waiver if they maintain a 3.0 GPA. Along with two other scholarships I found on my own, I had to only pay for books, room, and board amounting to around $3,000 a year. Along with TA work and summer internships I was able to break even.

    Could have I gone to another school, received a great education, made many great friendships and connections? Absolutely. But would it be worth $50,000 or more in debt? I don’t think so. I graduated debt free and went on to get my M.S. for free. I never quite understood people who decided to pay out-of-state tuition with little to no financial aid when they came from states with great public engineering schools (e.g. Texas, Illinois, California, Michigan, Virginia). To each their own, I guess.

    Which is the better deal: a private school with a sticker price of $45,000 which gives you a “deal” of $35,000 or a comparable public in-state school offers you no “deal” but the tuition is only $10,000. To me it’s a no brainer. Maybe I just don’t understand the draw of private schools.

  67. avatar

    I wish someone would’ve told me this when I was younger. My Mom always told me that it never mattered if I could get into a really good school because they couldn’t afford it. Consequently, I never tried hard in school and scraped by with a 3.2 (not bad considering I refused to do anything I considered busy work.) Then when it was time to apply for colleges only applied to a couple colleges nearby. I honestly remember thinking, well if I can’t get into a good school because I can’t afford it, what does it matter? So, moral of the story: this is a good article and if you have kids, just make sure they do their best and you will all figure out the rest later.

  68. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    SM: Damn. That’s like the most self-destructive mindset. Thanks for sharing with everyone — I bet it’s more common than I realized.

  69. avatar

    All that is great for the high achieving high-schooler…

    Of course a 4.0, spelling bee champion who can dunk will be more likely to get into great school, get huge loans and waivers.

    I consider myself to be a late-bloomer and didn’t really “get it” in high school. My life was wrestling and girls…

    Now I have been accepted into a MFA program and am ready to work my arse off, but I also face the monstrous debt of three years of private tuition.

    Have been applying for the scammy sounding loans found on the web but it’s turned up nothing but spam in three months. FAFSA is great but must be paid back with interest…

    Can’t say this particular article addresses this vast group of average students some of whom are looking to make up for wasted (classroom) time and start using their potential.

    Perhaps most of this unfocused, vast group is still chasing girls, combing their hair and playing video games full-time and have no interest in this fine blog.

  70. avatar
    Mr Jay

    Ramit, your analysis is based on numbers the educational establishment is feeding you and your own experience somehow getting scholarships. The reality for most students of the middle class, with high expected family contribution (EFC) calculations, is that only huge loans ( often taken out by their parents) will get them that prestigious degree. In the Northeast or West Coast $100K incomes leave nothing after paying the mortgage and taxes, but the EFC calculation doesn’t make any adjustment for that. How many middle class families can spend $40K a year for two or three kids with out it effecting their future financial security or having the debt falling back on the kid. The schools won’t let the student take on the debt because that will look bad for the school, so the whole financial aide process has turned to evaluating the parents like never before in history. The student debt at graduation number is something schools pay close attention to. If the applicant is a high EFC’er, and it looks like the parents aren’t going to Re-Fi the house, they are not going to let you in, given the risk you will start taking loans to get through on your own. So basically in these situations the student is strangely not accepted despite being much more qualified than others – this happens. There is actually nothing the school can do about your EFC – it is what it is and the government is increasingly helping to police it’s accuracy.

    But I agree… if there are readers of your blog from low EFC homes …definitely by all means apply to every single top school because way too many middle class fools are going to continue to leverage themselves to the hilt and retire poor, willing to subsidize your education to get that elitest diploma for theirs. Hurry to get in too, because until the economy crumbles no one is even going to question the sanity of all this, including the recent fact that 45% of all americans pay no tax. Walk quickly by all the bankers that are waiting there at the college door to give the working poor “High EFC middle class families” the loans to send Jr to school. Bankers who increasingly are getting the politicians to help them secure these loans of all loans, ones that cannot be erased. Campaign contributions flow, and the world is financing a debt on our people that they cannot walk away from.

    Ramit, you are smart enough to see the reason you and others got so much assistance was because others were forced to pay so much money for your free ticket. The Harvard’s and Yale’s are not charities, they have to get close to full tuition from many of their students… or should I say their wealthy families(and their endowments). Sure the highest of the highest colleges have heavy endowments but that doesn’t trickle down to middle class folks deemed to “have it” by some flawed analysis which is ignorant of the debt they are burdening families with. Instead it jumps over the tax paying poor and showers the children of the low EFC family. So basically most elite Privates have a ton of “full boat” paying rich, some middle class kids of vastly over leveraged parents ( likely the brightest bunch on average because of how competitive these spots are), and a decent group of subsidized low EFC students the schools are eager to march out and list as examples. Not that these kids aren’t sharp too, they just have a much better chance of attending, and can do so without incurring huge debt. This group makes the financial aid averages look better than it is.

    The only one in this blog that seemed to echo this middle class discrimination and frustration, and the strain it is going to put on future generations, was Sydni A. No comment made from Rami here – I’m afraid you just cant see it from your perch. Despite your analysis and conclusion that all are silly not to apply for the high priced Privates, it is a reality that these financial institutions and the over inflated educations they feed, are taking it to the American public like never before, a public who continue to leverage themselves to the max for college tuition that has escalated beyond it its value. The analasi shows a lack of understandingt about who is paying for these educations – the $50K tutions dont get paid out of thin air, scolarship money does not fall from the cluds for the middle class! When the next real estate bubble bursts, and it will again, the parents (many of them older without jobs then) will not be able to make the 2nd mortgage payments, many of these school loans will be in default..not just the mortgages like the last crash. And our next serious financial crisis will effect the world again. They will ask us how we did this to ourselves. Well some will say poetic justice was served, all the kids that came from low EFC homes, from parents who never paid taxes, that paid nothing to go to Ivy’s, with no debt will be able to inherit the planet. A lovely turn of the tables perhaps…but for folks from my perspective that cannot benefit from your recommendations, and can feel this whole disaster emerging, must find peace in selecting a more reasonable Public education. Maybe it’s our way of thumbing our nose at the Privates and Big Banks who continue to play their games, continue to breed the snobs and hypocrites, a system that will help take down America if we don’t wake up to it. If your lucky enough to grab one of their free educations and the impressive wall hanging that puts you in their stead…go for it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that, just because there is no sign on the door that reads “middle class trash need not apply” that it is not there…it most certainly is. Sure, don’t ever give up hope, apply, but in the end ,when the deal is not as fair for you or your family, embrace a State University education, and be the smarter and stronger one for it. Then run for office and change this corrupt system.

  71. avatar
    Sydni A.

    You put it much more eloquently than I, Mr. Jay.

    My “Chinese Prison” undergraduate from ASU has saddled my parents with approximately $40k in loans and myself with $20k…and that was just 3 years of tuition & board! I got a position as a staff member which covered my tuition for the next 2 years (I dropped to half-time so I could work full-time). My continued employment with ASU has, thankfully, provided a tuition waiver for my self and my husband at any of the Arizona universities, so we have been able to avoid taking on more debt as he finishes his undergraduate degree at ASU and I pursue a Masters through U of A.

    Thanks for contributing more depth and substance to my argument Jay!

  72. avatar
    Mr Jay

    I was compelled to write an email to Mr Jay Mathews of the Washington Post ( in response his article referenced by Ramit):


    I connected to your July 09 article through a blog and had to respond…
    Do You Know a High-Achieving Student Kept From College Because of Money?

    Of course there are many. I could not believe your commentary, in particular the comment “I noticed he did not identify even one person to whom this had happened”, like this needs to be illustrated? It’s likely you realize that very few, as a percentage of the total that apply, are accepted to the Ivy’s, Stamford, Duke or MIT for example. Perhaps among the long list of rejected students you can research to find one on your own that this happened to? Unfortunately most of the students that don’t get accepted are unidentified children of middle class trash, albeit straight A students of the middle class, that won’t get in because their parents aren’t poor enough. Basically in most of these cases the college has predetermined that the students of middleclass parents, theoretically have a high enough income to pay (as calculated per the EFC), but realistically the only way most of these kids will be able to attend is by taking on huge debt themselves. These students the school does not want, because it will affect their “average student debt at graduation calculation” which is monitored closely. A calculation that does not factor in parent debt. Kids of parents who have an income, pay taxes, but with almost nothing left after paying the mortgage, health insurance, taxes, car and food bills every month…can’t go to Harvard like rich kids or the trophy underprivileged kid. Where you may have a point with the poor talented student, perhaps you can’t see this reality from of the middle class kid from your perch in DC. Unfortunately you and others have done a wonderful job in convincing this country to eliminate taxes for reportedly 45% of the population now, and to get many of their kids to school on subsidies, you clearly can’t see the bigger problem with escalating college costs for the majority of families. Sure its true, for some kids of the lower end of the non taxpaying group, if they are sharp enough, they stand a good chance of getting in to an elitist liberal college, and as you say, they will likely be fought over if they have a sad enough story, then paraded as examples by these colleges. As far as the tax paying lowly middle class kid with even a 3.8 …very little chance if not also a fine athlete.

    So definitely many bright hard working kids are denied this chance at breaking into perhaps your families ilk, and prime students that can help make our country great, that should have the same opportunity as rich or poor, are instead settling for state schools, and not going on to become the Dr’s Lawyers, PHd engineers and scientists… simply to avoid the mountain of debt that will cripplethem or their parents in retirement. So essentially, these prestigious colleges are filled with the privileged kids (many now from Asia) and a smattering of under privileged. The privileged, many perhaps the offspring of same same elitist bankers waiting to suck the money out of the middle class, getting them to refinance the house while their jobs are at risk, sending the interst to bond holders in Hong Kong or Dubai. And now the government taking the reigns of the information gathering, to assure these bankers get the correct information. Many extremely talented middleclass kids frankly don’t want to put their parents through this demeaning loan process and to risk to their financial security, other parents just won’t take on the debt leaving the student to an inevitable fate. So some students won’t even apply to the Harvard’s, they resign themselves to their fate, their lot in life…what a shame. On the other hand, any bright applicant that comes from a home that has low income or government income, perhaps a single parent home, immigrants, perhaps where no one has ever paid taxes before, should certainly apply…are increasingly being encourage to apply, these colleges want them badly. I’m glad for these lucky kids, who wouldn’t be.

    Beyond the unfairness to middle class students, I’m afraid this college loan and remortgaging rip-off will be a large component of the next financial collapse if something is not done about it fairly soon. When the next real estate bubble bursts, students, even the ones with jobs, with mountains debt won’t be able to consume. Over leveraged retiring baby boomers(many laid off in favor of young graduates) won’t be able to spend much either and will require costly healthcare (due to the growing insurance skim ). Many students will have to suspend their educations when the bubble pops. The world effected by the crash will again ask how we allowed the financial institutions to do this to ourselves again.

    It appears Mr.. Mathews you have no sense of the magnitude of this issue or what is in store for future students and their parents. Perhaps the Post suffers too much from this elitist perspective that misses mainstream Americas pain on this issue? I say enough with this charade that pretends to care for the down trodden in this country, start using your Post pulpit to plea the case of the working taxpayers that are getting an unfair shake. Perhaps Washington is too deep in the mire of wealthy lobbyists and the politicians they feed, and to survive there, you must stick only to the shallow charity dinner BS that sells with self serving wealthy liberals. To them it is only their rich acquaintances, and creating the mirage of helping the poor that matters… to the rest of us, most of that crap don’t mean a damn thing anymore.

    Delbanco’s conclusion that “a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their ability to pay, and we have failed seriously to confront the problem.” is dead on correct!!! Wake up and smell the coffee, consider using your position to lending a hand to us drowning soles, and to the country while we still have a fighting chance.

    Perhaps you should get together for a latte with the blogger and Stanford graduate Ramit Sethi who defends your position and writes on his blog
    “The curious aversion to student debt is at once irrational and understandable. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t take on $40k of debt to attend Chico State. Actually, I wouldn’t pay $10 to go to Chico, and I would rather send my daughter to a Chinese prison than the 4-year gangbang that is ASU or UofA. But I would easily pay $40k to attend a top-tier school like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale because of the education, caliber of peers, and opportunities available at schools like this.”

    Of course that’s $40K of debt per year, per kid, for the middle class.

    Well latte friggin da to both of you.

    Jay B

  73. avatar
    Life After Higher Education: Navigating Student Loans | LegalFish: The Daily Tackle

    […] are lessons here. Ramit Sethi talks about them. So, too, does Jim Wang of the personal finance blog, Bargaineering.  Jim’s blogs on student […]

  74. avatar

    While I agree on principle to this, I think you really put a downer on community colleges, and assumes, magically, that every well-performing student will get into a high-caliber school. I graduated top ten percent in the class: not good enough to get into Yale or anything, and not good enough to get and full-rides to state colleges. It’s not that I’m a bad or lazy student, or dumb, it’s just the way the cards fell. So I did my time at a community college, and saved unbelievable amounts of money. I’m headed into a 4 year state college next year, and most of my tuition is going to be paid through pell grants and scholarships earned through my time in a community college. I will be graduating virtually debt free, something I could not have done going straight into a 4 year college.

    So yes, students, apply for those Ivy Leagues and MITs because they WILL take care of you, but if you don’t get in (don’t count on it, let’s be real), and state won’t cover all of tuition, go to a community college. Do well and get your PTK and ACG grants and scholarships and you’ll be set.

  75. avatar
    Bloggin' Bloggin' Bloggin', Keep Them Bloggers Bloggin' | Your Finances 101

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  76. avatar

    We’re a middle income family (he’s retired; I teach part time–joint annual income under $90,000). We drive 1986 and 2003 used cars. We rarely go anywhere; we’re very frugal.

    My child’s initial FA offer from Dream LAC was just over $20,000/year–their total COA is over $50,000.

    My husband just called Dream LAC’s FA office to ask for some aid closer to what Duke had offered our child–nearly $6500 more per year. Dream LAC’s FA officer’s response to our mention of Duke’s offer: “I don’t know how they arrived at that.” LAC then upped its offer to $1700/year more.

    Dream LAC “typical” FA package shows the average offer over $11,000 higher than what we were offered. I’m bewildered by the discrepancy. Does it make sense to ask again?

  77. avatar

    Nice advice, applying for scholarships is key (at least I think so), I have manged to secure a lot of money in small local scholarships, and have never had to take out a private student loans. It can be done, I would utilize resources that are non-lender based such as htp:// and this is also a nice reference

    hope this helps some other students out there!

  78. avatar
    Mr Jay

    Amazing Skyler, what a wonderful world, so free school is really possible for anyone!! What is the tuition/TCA for the college you are attending? We all would love to see how scholarships totally cover a $54K private university cost. I’m sure a breakdown would enlighten everyone as to the realistic opportunities to come out of the Ivy’s loan free. Teach us to be rich, while avoiding those chinese prison schools.

    I still think most folks will have to take out a little loan. Perhaps some of your scholarships were needs based? In this case the middle class kid who’s family has a high EFC but no money after monthly expenses is still faced with loans.

  79. avatar
    Guy G.

    I think the problem with many young people getting ready for school is that they are sometimes lazy, but mostly so focused on all the things they’re doing just trying to get accepted, that they don’t even take the time to apply for the grants.

    My sister is a perfect example. She’s now stressed about getting a summer job to pay for her second year because she didn’t have enough saved and got no grants or scholarships.

    Thanks for sharing,

  80. avatar
    Kym B

    While your post raises some interesting ideas and thoughts about the current generation in college or about to enter college, I still believe it’s not quite as easy as you make it seem to be. First, you focus more on the “best” schools – Ivy Leagues that have enough in their endowment to pay everyone’s tuition for all 4 years and still have money left over. Sure, maybe for the people applying (and who can actually get in) to those colleges it’s easier to get financial aid because the school has enough money to supply it, but what about the smaller colleges, the public universities, and the schools that don’t have quite as much money (in all honesty, the colleges that most of America goes to)? Those colleges are not willing to pay for most of a student’s tuition no matter how much they “want them”.
    “A 2006 study of major research universities found that they spent $171 million on aid to the poorest students—those whose families made less than $20,000 a year. At the same time, they spent $257 million on financial aid for the richest students, from families earning more than $100,000 a year.”
    In this study nothing is mentioned about the middle class – where most of America falls. Perhaps you just didn’t publish it, but I think it’s important for people to realize that the middle classes do not get as much help as they need. If you’re poor scholarships come flooding your way-schools want the kids who can potentially have the “rags-to-riches” success stories. If you’re in the upper class either a) your family can already afford to send you to college, or b) colleges give you money since they see you as a potential donator once you graduate, and meaning they want you now, so later when you have even more money they will be getting donations from you. But then there’s the middle class; their parents do not make enough to become big time donators in the future, but the government is under the impression that their parents make enough money to be able to afford 4 years of college. Sure this could be true if they don’t eat for the next 4 years and live in a box, but to be able to live comfortably the middle classes need the financial help.
    “Tuition should be one of the last decisions you make”
    Absolutely wrong. Tuition is usually the deciding factor for a college decision. No matter what anyone says, cost DOES matter and it DOES make a huge difference. Especially when looking for an undergrad education, the school a person goes to does not matter as much so it doesn’t make sense to go into a lot of debt when it’s really grad school that means the most to employers. So why should people put themselves in tons of debt for a bachelors degree?
    Maybe when you went to college getting financial aid was easy and applying for a few scholarships guaranteed minimal fees while in college, but times are different now. With the current state of the economy scholarship, grants, and loans funds are way down, so trying to figure out how to pay for college is a nightmare for some families. Students dread receiving their financial aid packages because they know it won’t hold good news. Maybe instead of people saying students should just look harder for more scholarships, etc. and that if a college really wanted them they would give them as much money they need (which is false), colleges and universities should actually lower their tuition so people could afford it without all the unnecessary stress of student debt.

  81. avatar

    I must disagree. The current financial aid/ need-based scholarship system mostly puts pressure on families who can only pay for such a college if they raid the college funds of their other children, stop eating, sell the house, etc., and other insane measures. I got accepted into tier 1 colleges, but the financial support was minimal, and I couldn’t afford to go. I come from a high school where it’s routine for students to rejoice at acceptances from ivy leagues, and then fall into a depressed period when they realize they can’t afford to go.

  82. avatar

    I resonate with much of your post Ramit. I came from a small rural community where most assumed I must be rich because I applied to Duke. In fact, Duke’s generous financial aid package made my costs cheaper than any of the in-state schools and included NO loans. My parents gracious agreed to bear the burden of the remaining costs (6-digit thousands per year), and it was a stretch, but they were happy and even proud to do it. I’m thankful to the generous donors to Duke who may my attendance possible, my faithful and giving parents, and my education at a great University. Thanks for the post.

  83. avatar
    Public School Student

    Mr Jay and Nmls hit it straight on the head. I’m guessing the author used to be dirt poor. However, if both of your parents graduated college and command middle-class salaries, you’ll get no aid.

    My older sibling attended Stanford, and my parents basically emptied the college fund (I was left with nothing) and a good portion of their retirement fund to put him through four years of Stanford education. Now, I am currently attending a public school on a full tuition scholarship. My parents told me they would be willing to spend money on my education in a heartbeat, but I’m not willing to put them through any additional suffering.

    Do not be fooled by this post.

  84. avatar

    I also find this post offensive in ways. I just graduated from the University of West Florida today and can testify that a small, not high ranking university, is better than a Chinese prison. While many of the points made in the article may apply to some, it may have a discouraging effect on people who cannot get into a big ten school. Students who can get accepted to a good private school should go for it, you are right about that, but not getting into a school should never discourage people from making the best out of what they can do.

  85. avatar

    I agree with Sydni and Mr. Jay- middle class students are boned here. My father makes around $100k a year, but between loans, food, car payments, taxes, retirement, medical bills for my aging grandparents, insurance, job changes, and saving for my sister’s upcoming college needs $14k a year is a lot to ask for. They’re pulling from retirement funds to do it, and I am paying for housing and food. I worked 20 hours a week while at (a top 20) school taking max credits so that I can hopefully graduate with only $8k in student loans. I just finished my second year, and whether I need more in loans or not is dependent on whether I can get a paying internship or co-op next summer. Because of work I struggled my way through both semesters and in this last semester I had between 15 and 80 hours of homework a week (trust me, I counted) so my grades are shit, and at the moment I do not qualify for the vast majority of internships or scholarships and finding work that would help me get a job or into grad school is nearly impossible.

    Anyway, the point is that I’m one of the people in the middle and I’ve been forgotten (or ignored, not sure what the difference is). I’ve never gotten financial aid through FAFSA except after my dad lost his job and made half of what he normally makes, and even then they gave me $5000 in loans and $2500 in work study, and none of that went to my parents. I’d like to hear your response to people like Mr. Jay, Sydni, and I.

  86. avatar


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    10)Monthly income:………………………
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    13)Purpose of Loan:………………………
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    ルイヴィトンコピー 偽物激安ヴィトンコピー 販売階のほらを輸入する資格があって、全国の第一項のナイロンのふろしき包みは傲慢なシリーズの女性を配合して包んで、高級で派手で、私達はただふろしき包みの中のハイエンドのブランドだけをしま。ハイエンドのファスナー、私達の採用の高級なファスナーは大工場のOEMからで、ファスナーが順調で滑るのは丈夫で、高品質と高享受。

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    There are a lot of misconceptions here. First off, the reason there is a greater increase in financial assistance to upper middle class families is because there are more students from this background getting into colleges. The lower income students don’t necessarily have the qualifications or are even attending college. Secondly, lower income students often get a full financial aid package even with lower grades and test scores and are admitted instead of more qualified candidates who don’t demonstrate financial need because federal assistance is guaranteed funds for the school. I personally know people who have stated that their parents are “separated” and use the lower parent’s income to get more financial aid. Every single one of them have received a full financial aid package and has gotten into top schools such as UC Berkeley with a 3.7 GPA and SAT score of only 1700 while a 4.3 GPA and 2000 SAT score student was denied admittance because they did not demonstrate financial need. I think colleges put students with financial need in one pool and students without in another. In addition, the schools also have to demonstrate their generosity and commitment to helping the community by admitting a certain number of lower income students.

  98. avatar

    I forgot to mention in my previous post about those who do not demonstrate financial need, I’m talking about the majority of the middle working class families who fafsa has decided that we do not need assistance. Just because we have decided to be responsible, to work and pay taxes, to put away money for our children’s college funds, we automatically don’t need assistance, but those who lie on their fafsa applications or get to stay home and raise their children with government assistance, those are the ones with the full financial aid packages. In regards to applying to the ivy league dream schools, once again middle class families are penalized because these schools make you fill out a CSS profile to disclose all your assets including the equity in your home. Any assistance you are referring to didn’t really pertain to the muscle working class does it?

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