It was 2004, and I knew…nothing. I had just landed in Boston to start my first year of college, and I was totally overwhelmed. I had gone to high school in rural Maine, where my mornings were spent waiting for the school bus next to a field of mooing cows while my hair, still wet from the shower, froze around my face.
Now, I was in the city. I went to a Starbucks for the first time, I spent all my money on pizza by the slice and clothes that weren’t from Walmart, I walked past the Hermes boutique on a daily basis where they pumped fancy cologne out into the street to cover up the smell of the sewer right next to the building — I was in love. But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Four years later, I was still in Boston, but everything was different. I couldn’t afford Starbucks, and those $2 slices of pizza were a treat, not a regular part of my diet. I had graduated from what I thought was the college of my dreams with no job prospects in my chosen career field (turns out “well-paid poet” just isn’t a thing), and was suddenly responsible for more than $1,000 a month in student loan payments, which I could barely afford to pay with my retail job. Where did I go wrong?
I can trace the origins of my more than $60,000 in student loan debt (for a BA in writing, woof) back to my senior year of high school, when I applied early decision to my dream school — and never looked back. Now, I regret it.
Early decision seemed like a great idea at the time. I had known which college I wanted to go to since I was in eighth grade, when my social studies teacher who happened to direct our school plays mentioned it offhand as a great performing arts school. Even though I had decided by then that I wanted to be a writer, I still knew in my heart that this was the only school for me. I would apply Early Decision, and if I got in, I wouldn’t even have to bother applying to other schools.
My school guidance counselor told me I was a shoo-in. My mom, chronically ill and chronically stressed, was just glad I was applying to college at all, and my dad, a lumber truck driver who worked at least 60 hours a week because we needed the overtime money in order to make ends meet, hadn’t gone to college and was mostly just proud that I’d be finishing high school with good grades.
They said if I got in to my dream school and needed to take out a loan, they would co-sign it, no problem. I just had to fill our the loan application and they’d sign on the dotted line, as long as I promised I would never miss a payment. My parents loved and supported me, but we were all in over our heads.
I sent in my application and waited with bated breath until I received the coveted “big envelope” in the mail in November. I was in.
I never thought about applying to other colleges. I never even considered the importance of comparing financial aid packages. I just assumed that my family’s low income would ensure that I would get great financial aid, and even if I had to take out some loans, surely my amazing career as a world-class poet would pay off my debt in no time (LOL). I was 17.
The perks of early decision…
Of course, there are plenty of benefits to applying to college early. You find out if you’re accepted to the school of your choice months before regular-admission acceptances, so you can spend the rest of your senior year of high school enjoying time with your friends and immersed in your favorite extracurriculars, not stressing over getting your applications in on time and worrying over whether or not you’ll get in. And with early decision, even if you are rejected from your first-choice school, you’re still left with months to spend applying to others.
Plus, early admission rates tend to exceed those of regular admission, meaning you may have a better chance of getting into your dream school if you apply early.
…and the (many) pitfalls
But if you do apply early decision, many schools treat your acceptance to their program as binding, meaning you can’t apply to any other schools and then compare and contrast their programs — and (don’t miss this part like I did!) the financial aid benefits they’re offering to you. Of course, some schools offer “early action” applications, which differ from early decision in that your acceptance isn’t binding (you’re taking action to apply early but not yet making a decision). Still, if you apply early action and get into your dream school in November, how many kids left to their own devices are really going to think long-term and continue the arduous college application process so they can do something as mundane as compare numbers in a few months?
And yet, if I could do it all over again, that’s exactly what I would have done. Most students apply to 7-10 colleges. If I could go back in time and apply to at least a handful of schools, wait until I receive my financial aid packages, and take them into consideration before deciding where to go, I absolutely would.
Where I went wrong
I thought I did everything right. I applied for FAFSA and looked at my school’s website to see what my estimated financial aid package would be, but when it actually came, the amount I was expected to pay far exceeded the Expected Family Contribution calculated based on my family’s income. But I had already been accepted early decision. So I applied for a private loan — and charged forward. Oof.
Being tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt into your 30s is not something I would wish on anyone. I’ve missed out on so much because of my debt. I’ve passed up travel opportunities, haven’t been able to make exciting or risky career decisions because I have always have needed to ensure that, first and foremost, I would be able to pay my loan bills (if I ever missed a payment, the burden would fall to my parents, who wouldn’t have been able to make even one without descending into financial crisis), and I haven’t been able to help my family out financially in any way, something I dearly wish I could do.
I loved my college experience, but the things I got from my education there could have been accomplished at a less expensive school — or at least at one that offered better financial aid.
I would have made friends at any college. I could have lived in a city. I would have had the opportunity to be a resident assistant and do a semester abroad and join clubs at any school. But in my 17-year-old naiveté, I thought I could only get that at my dream school. So, I applied early decision and didn’t look back — until the fall after I graduated, when the grace period on my loans ended and I suddenly realized I had made a mistake that would haunt me for decades.
My first hope for teens who are applying for schools is that they have better guidance counselors than I did — those who will help them understand that there are extreme financial implications to choosing a school, and that just because you’re a “shoo-in” for one doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at others.
My other hope is that more high schools and colleges alike begin to focus on teaching kids financial literacy, so that their understanding of debt translates to the real world. It’s one thing to see “$60,000 for four years” written on a piece of paper, and another thing entirely to realize that this means Future You won’t be able to afford to celebrate friends’ birthdays, buy new shoes when yours wear through, visit the dentist, or live in an apartment where you actually have your own bedroom for years after graduating.
When you leave high school, the world should be at your feet. Life should feel full of possibilities. I want teens who are applying to colleges to embrace those possibilities — by trying for as many schools as they can, so they don’t get stuck with what they think is the right decision, only to realize they made a mistake many years later.
You only get one chance at your 20s, and no one should spend that decade crying over their loan statements and wishing they could turn back time.
A version of this story was originally published in October 2019.