Why I Turned Down My Dream University
Five benefits of a debt free college experience
I was an accomplished high school student. Involved. Good grades. Hundreds of volunteer hours. The whole shebang. So when it came time to apply for college, I wanted to spread my net far and wide to see what opportunities presented themself to me.
I ended up applying to thirteen universities: Ivy League schools, private schools, in-state schools, out-of-state schools, and SEC schools. You name it, and I probably applied to it.
Do you want to know where I ended up?
My 11th pick out of 13 and one of the easiest universities in the country to get into. Low and behold, I became a Sun Devil at Arizona State University.
As a young, overconfident, and pretentious seventeen-year-old, I desired to go somewhere with academic prestige. Arizona State’s 85% acceptance rate did not exactly satiate that desire.
So how did I find myself in Tempe, Arizona, at a school once notorious for its party culture?
Well, I had a father who talked some sense into me and insisted I do everything in my power to avoid student debt. And wouldn’t you know it, at a school as large and resourceful as Arizona State, they have a lot of scholarship money to give out.
I ended up earning a full ride, and even though I could have made more expensive options work, it was the wisest financial decision for my future.
As I look back on my college experience, I can’t help but think of all the experiences and opportunities I was able to have because of that decision.
Below are my five most significant takeaways from attending university debt-free:
I Was Able to Travel More
I’ve never met someone who didn’t enjoy traveling.
Among life’s greatest joys are going to new places, meeting new people, trying new food, and partaking in new experiences. Who wouldn’t want to spend as much of their time doing that as possible?
However, the stark reality is that traveling is expensive, and even traveling on a budget can put a dent in your wallet — especially as a college student.
By avoiding student debt, you can funnel most of your earnings to travel. This can pay dividends as a college student because travel is fun and a great way to manage your mental health as a student.
Forbes cites five great reasons why traveling is good for your mental health:
- It’s a great stress buster
- It helps you reinvent yourself
- It boosts happiness and satisfaction
- It makes you mentally resilient
- It enhances creativity
College is a stressful time in life and burnout is very real. Resting and relaxing during school breaks are vital for your mental health and academic performance. Sadly, many students can’t travel on break because they’re too broke or working to pay for living expenses.
Getting away on a stress-free vacation is the perfect way to reset during a busy school year.
Now I know everyone has their opinion on unpaid internships, so don’t come after me in the comments. Are they exploitative? Yeah, in most cases, they probably are.
However, there’s no denying that professional experience and access to a network can be beneficial. Without student debt to worry about, you can afford to get paid in experience, and frequently that experience will pay off.
In fact, I landed a relatively prestigious and paid internship in my final semester of college because of a connection I had made while working an unpaid internship during my sophomore year.
Although paid internships are preferred, most internships open to first and second-year students are unpaid. Avoiding debt allows you to take advantage of those opportunities and get a leg up over your peers.
I’m no personal finance expert, but I’ve read enough articles and books to know that the earlier you take your finances seriously and start investing, the better.
Now, it is unlikely that you’ll make enough money during your college years to amass any fortune or achieve financial freedom. However, investing during college allows you to make less costly mistakes and navigate the learning curve before graduation.
Losing a few hundred dollars from your college job waiting tables stings less than squandering your signing bonus when you land your first job.
Throw a few bucks into a Roth IRA account, brush up on investing lingo, and familiarize yourself with a financial service provider.
Financial literacy and investing are areas I wish I had dedicated more time to during my early college years. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Learn now and reap the benefits later.
Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It occurs in the work environment, during travel, over a shared meal, or while conducting research.
Learning outside the classroom is called experiential learning.
Kent State University defines it like this:
Experiential Learning is the process of learning by doing. By engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations.
It sounds advantageous, right? Why wouldn’t you want to get some hands-on experience and exposure to real-world situations? Sprinkle some reflection in, and it sounds hugely beneficial for students.
The Kent State webpage goes on to list seven separate benefits students gain from taking part in experiential learning. Here are three of my favorite:
- A broader view of the world and an appreciation of community
- Insight into their own skills, interests, passions, and values
- Self-confidence and leadership skills
So why doesn’t everyone participate in experiential learning? Well, getting students outside of the classroom into the real world costs money. Most study abroad programs come with hefty price tags, and many research opportunities are unpaid and require relocation.
If you’re able to attend school for free, you can more easily afford experiential learning opportunities with the money that would have gone toward standard tuition. It’s a great way to gain professional experience and apply your classroom knowledge to the real world.
Take More Risks
As a recent college grad, I can confirm that graduating from college is a chaotic time. You’re juggling school and a job hunt on top of your daily responsibilities. It’s a bittersweet experience and comes with its fair share of stress.
After all, you’re about the enter the “real world.”
Your expenses are about to increase, and you may have to finance a move to a new state, and there’s a good chance you’ll have student loans to start paying back.
The Education Data Initiative shares that among today’s college students, 65% graduate with student debt.
Put all these new expenditures together, and it’s safe to say recent grads are forced to prioritize compensation as they search for their first job. While pay should be near the top of the list when choosing a career — so should fit, growth opportunities, and location.
Working a job you hate, at a company with no lateral growth, in a city that underwhelms you can quickly take its toll.
You can take more risks with your first job without massive amounts of debt to pay back.
Work at a startup that’s solving an issue you’re passionate about. Pursue a fellowship that will advance your career but may not pay great. Heck, take a few months to travel and figure out what you really want to do with your life.
I understand attending college without taking on debt is not realistic for everyone. But with proper preparation in high school and a little bit of effort it can be a reality for many. Having the conversation about approaching college as a financial decision is a step in the right direction.
Thank you for reading, if you found value in this article feel free to check out some of my other pieces. I post daily on a variety of business, education, lifestyle, and technology topics!