Is it ever a good idea to turn down your dream school? One college grad did exactly that, when a lesser-known, less prestigious state school made an offer he couldn't refuse: free tuition, free housing, a laptop, and more. Here's how he chose between two *very good* schools—and what he learned along the way.
The hardest part of college might be deciding where to go. In fact, I’d rank staying up all night trying to figure out what school to spend four years at as more stressful than any all-nighter. Nobody remembers that 20-page research paper you started and finished in 8 hours during sophomore year of high school, least of all you.
One in Boston—that yard where people “paakh the cahhh.” They rejected me outright, which was fine because I’m a New Yorker, and I didn’t want to live across enemy lines anyway. Another one—the place where Denzel Washington studied—accepted me early, which was great because I liked the school, and it meant I didn’t need to send out applications for about 12 others. The third, one of my dream schools since childhood, accepted me. The fourth school was one I hadn’t given much thought to before applying. It was the Macaulay Honors program at Hunter College, a city school. They didn’t just accept me but offered four years of free tuition, two years of free housing, and a laptop, among some other perks.
The decision was tough. Do I go to the place I’d hoped to go for years? Or, do I call an audible and take the less recognizable, but more selective and economically reasonable city college that nobody seems to have heard of? I wasn’t sure. So I went on some tours.
The expensive private school was clean and had amenities. The guide spent most of the tour pointing out benches where famous alums had sat. “AnnaSophia Robb ate a bagel there one time!” “I saw Mary-Kate and Ashley smoke something—moving on.” It was fun to hear about celebrities, but I wasn’t sold.
I visited Hunter and talked to some potential classmates. The students were really cool and there was an edge to the school that attracted me. People seemed down-to-earth and hard working. Best of all, everybody seemed genuinely happy to be there.
I’m a very fortunate person. My parents would have been able to help me out with tuition, and I could have afforded to go to a big school. It would have certainly been a burden, though not a completely unmanageable one. But there was something about the students at Hunter that excited me. Blue collar work ethic sounds like a sticky phrase with mixed connotations, but to me, it means a desire to work hard, and a certain pragmatic conscientiousness of the environment around you. That’s what I sought at Hunter, where most students worked and everyone was motivated to get their degree.
Free tuition, boarding, and a laptop piqued my interest, but the benefits of the honors program were what sold me. There are 540 seats in all of the Macaulay Honors program, which operates across eight CUNY schools. The fact that I would have my own advisor and get to know a fairly small group of students was what really sealed the deal.
One of my classmates received early acceptance to medical school. A number of my older friends started getting scholarships to graduate school and prestigious fellowships like Watson and Goldwater, which were names I didn’t know but understood were important. Somebody, who I probably should have tried to befriend, even got a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Even at this small college, good things happened to motivated people
I also had a couple of internships during my time in school. One was with a publishing company, the other was for a newspaper. The second internship led to a freelancing gig where I covered the El Chapo trial, but that’s a story for another time.
I got to study abroad. Macaulay encouraged, and even helped pay, for my trip. We had something called the Opportunity Fund, which offers students financial assistance to study abroad or support their internships or research work. This money dried up during my time at school, so not everything about the college was flawless. Regardless, we had some good stuff.
During my four years at Hunter, I was able to develop a genuine relationship with my advisor, and even the director of my college. Hunter itself is a big school, but being able to go back to that base in the midst of it was invaluable. School was tough and it was easy to get derailed, but they never let me fall through the cracks.
Our dorms were very old—literally, a converted mental institution—and Hunter itself is not perfect. I probably wouldn’t have gone had I not been accepted into its honors college.
Hunter is a commuter school in the heart of the city. Most kids go home every night, so there is no real campus spirit. My friends and I used to joke that we didn’t go to “real college” with parties and football. Not all of my classmates were great students either. Then again, the same is true for big private schools. The college is deteriorating, but I still took some great classes, had some great professors, made connections (the point of college I think), made great friends and got stuff done.
After spending your entire life working towards graduating, actually experiencing your college graduation is an imposing experience. Looking around at mine, almost all of my classmates had solid plans for post-grad life. Many would be going to grad school. Lots would be attending on scholarships. Some were even like me, graduating from one of the top honors colleges in the country with no debt. As for what I did have, that was the tools and support to figure post-grad out.
While I know a number of people who are very happy with their decision to have gone to a big private school, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything they paid to access—except maybe better pool tables. School is what you make of it, and I know that I surrounded myself with people who were smarter than me and pushed me to become a better student and worker. That was what I wanted coming into school, and that’s what I did.
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