I didn’t go to my dream school. Now I’m living debt free

This is an update of a column published on April 18, 2014.

A decade ago, my husband and I were in the position so many of you find yourselves, watching our child worry about where she would attend college.

Fall has become the season of fret as high school seniors submit their college applications early — often by Nov. 1 — in hopes of knowing where they’ve been accepted by the new year.

One thing that should factor greatly into the college choice is cost. Will you or your child need to take out student loans? This month, millions of borrowers resumed payment on their education debt. Student debt is closing in on $2 trillion for undergraduate and graduate loans.

We told our three children they could apply anywhere they wanted, but our savings and any scholarship money they received had to cover the full cost of attendance. No loans, for them or us.

What follows is a column my eldest daughter, Monique Olivia McIntyre, wrote in 2014 near the end of her freshman year at the University of Maryland at College Park. She’s now 28 and happily living a debt-free life.

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For as long as I can remember, I have been preparing for college.

And not because I wanted to, but because I was “encouraged” (nagged) by my parents. It started in middle school. I had to get good grades so I could get into a good program at my high school, where I had to get good grades so I could get into a good college.

And I wasn’t alone. It was very similar for my classmates. Of course, my experience was different in one important way: My mother is a personal finance columnist. Plus, my parents had money saved for me to go to college.

I work at an Ivy League school. My son wants to apply elsewhere.

My whole life, I have been immersed in a freakish amount of financial knowledge — and assessing the price of college was no exception. While I was getting the money talk, many of my friends and classmates were simply being told to get into a “good” college and the rest would somehow fall into place.

Another thing I’ve inherited from my mother: my neurotic tendencies. This college question was causing me a crazy amount of stress. So in my father’s usual fashion — during one of my “moments” when all I really wanted was a tub of ice cream and a rom-com marathon — a legal pad was brought out. And we began to chart and rate the schools based on distance, location, academics, size, sports and cost. (Many decisions are made using my dad’s legal pad.)

Now, I was guilty of using the smile-and-nod routine during almost all of those “cost of college” talks, so when I actually had to consider the money, it took me a little by surprise.

For one thing, the cost of private and out-of-state schools was so much higher than in-state ones. Also, there was so much more to pay for than just room, board and tuition. (That either didn’t register with me or, more truthfully, I probably zoned out during that part of our talks.) You have to pay for books, which are not the $15 summer reads I was used to. And, of course, meals away from the dining hall, dorm supplies, entertainment and transportation. If you have a car, you have to pay to park it on campus. You even have to pay to apply to college.

Speaking to my classmates, there seemed to be a huge mental gap between how much college was going to cost and where that money was going to come from.

One problem I encountered that my peers also struggled with was the fact that my parents made enough money that I didn’t qualify for much, if any, financial aid, but they didn’t make enough to simply write a check for the school of my dreams: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

UNC was everything I imagined and wanted in a school: away from home, warm weather, beautiful campus, great sports teams and an excellent program for my major. In my mind, if I got in, even though the cost for an out-of-state student of about $46,000 a year was admittedly quite high, I thought my parents would make it work. They did tell me to prepare for maybe not being able to go. But again, I performed the smile-and-nod routine. In my mind, I would find a way to go to that school, even if I had to list my car, which I named Charlotte, as my home address.

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So maybe in the end it was good that I didn’t get into UNC — although at the time, I felt the world was crumbling around me. I don’t know what would have happened if I was accepted but was unable to go because of how much it cost. That happened to my friends, and they were devastated. And yet some decided to go anyway and just take on the loans.

I ended up at the University of Maryland at College Park — and I’m nearly finished with my first year. It had everything I wanted from Chapel Hill and ranked high on the legal-pad list.

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The only real problem I had with U-Md. was that it was so close to home and my parents (okay, my mother). But now that I’m here, it feels a world away. I received a scholarship from the school, but even that doesn’t go as far as I thought it would. I still need to cover about $15,000 a year, and that doesn’t include the cost of books and other personal expenses, which my parents require that I pay from income I earn during the summer. But it’s still so much less than we would have had to pay if I had gone to Chapel Hill. So I’m glad I am at U-Md. I love it here and don’t believe that I would have liked UNC any better.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

I see now how much of a struggle it is for most people not only to get into college but also to pay for it. Watching other students work to get grants and scholarships and then having to fall back on loans has really made me appreciate that my parents saved for me to go to school. They want me to be debt-free when I graduate. I now see the wisdom in that.

Right now, thousands of high school seniors are deciding where to go to college in the fall. I offer this small piece of advice: Understand that while going to a prestige school may seem appealing and the only option for you, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter so much where you go, but what you do when you get there.

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

My mortgage payoff story: My husband and I paid off the house in the spring of 2023 thanks to making extra payments and taking advantage of a mortgage recast. Even though it lowered my perfect 850 credit score and my column about it sparked some serious debate with readers, it was one of the best financial decisions I’ve made.

Credit card debt: If you’re in the habit of carrying credit card debt, stop. It’s just a myth that it will boost your credit score. For those looking to get out of credit card debt, see if a balance transfer is right for you.

Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of my timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career or planning for retirement.

Test yourself: Do you know where you stand financially? Take our quiz and read more personal finance advice.

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