Sunday, October 11, 2020

Should student choose her expensive dream school?

A reader we're calling Olivia who is from a Midwestern state is planning to attend college. She has been accepted to the University of Cambridge in England, which she writes "has been my dream for years."

Olivia is struggling, however, with Cambridge's steep price tag of more than $100,000 for four years. "I know Cambridge would give me the best undergraduate education I can get in my subject," she writes, "but I could also attend a prestigious university like McGill for roughly $60,000, about a third of the cost of Cambridge."

Olivia's parents assure her that they can afford to pay for Cambridge and they don't want her to take cost into account when deciding where to attend. "But $160,000 is a huge sum," Olivia notes, and she feels guilty when her friends tell her that they don't know how their families are going to be able to finance their education.

"I find myself dodging the question when people ask how much Cambridge will cost and whether I have scholarships," she writes. She also worries about buyer's remorse. "I'm concerned my time at Cambridge would be tainted by the feeling that I should have spent my parents' hard-earned savings on a perfectly good, cheaper school like McGill."

Olivia writes that she can't shake the feeling that she is exploiting her economic privilege. "Can I go to Cambridge in good conscience when I could get a good education elsewhere for a fraction of the cost?"

Olivia's email reminds me of just how expensive college tuition, room and board, and fees have become. Getting into college is challenging enough. Being able to afford it once you're accepted presents an insurmountable hurdle for many. Being saddled with sizable student loans upon graduation is hardly an ideal solution, but it's one that many students face after spending four years at the school they've dreamed of attending. Some universities are beginning to offer tuition waivers for admitted students whose families fall below a certain income level, a move that strikes me as a start toward addressing some of the economic disparities facing college-bound students.

But based on what she writes, Olivia's family does not seem to be unable to afford the tuition at whatever college she chooses to attend. Evaluating cost should still certainly be a factor, but if her parents advise her to choose from the colleges to which she's been accepted based on which provides her the best opportunity to study in the field she desires, she should listen to them.

If in her evaluation process it turns out that Olivia is equally torn between Cambridge and McGill, it seems a no-brainer to choose the less expensive of the two. But if Cambridge truly seems to provide her with the best educational options, she's wise to trust her parents' advice.

That Olivia is struggling with how to reconcile the cost her parents will face from her four years at Cambridge suggests that she doesn't embrace the idea that she is entitled to whatever she wants regardless of the cost. It strikes me that the right thing to do in making a college choice is to try to find the best fit at the strongest college you can afford. And the right thing for colleges would be to find a way to make tuition affordable for all who are admitted without expecting them to take on crippling debt. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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