On elite colleges, acceptance and futures

Posted on 03.04.2011

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This article came out this week from the NYT: Elite Colleges: Why You Were Denied. It’s one of the ‘discussion’ pieces where a bunch of experts in a given field write about a specific subject. In this case, the subject was low acceptance rates at elite colleges.

Having went to and then worked for an elite fine arts college, I understand every side of this discussion and felt like I should share my own views and side. I’ve got a few friends and family members that will be going to college soon and I feel like they need to know these things.

I got in to (ART COLLEGE, I won’t name the school), and that was the beginning of the dream. Then came the reality: how to find a way to pay for it. (ART COLLEGE) is not cheap by any means, and as far as art schools go it’s on par with all of the other elites in that business. Its tuition is comparable to that of regular elite colleges, and is quite similar to, say, Hopkins University, also in Baltimore.

It was less expensive then than it is now, of course, but at that time interest rates on college loans were low and the housing bubble was just starting to boom. My loans had an average APR of about 1.5%. That’s practically free money, compared to the current rates. So it really wasn’t a big deal to take the loans out back then. Everyone was doing it; everyone HAD to do it. You effectively could not get a job without a BA in something at the time (now the same goes for an MA). So it was seen as an investment in the future, as they say.

I don’t exactly know what I was thinking at the time, but my family had always had money issues since my dad’s layoff during my middle school years. I think that at the time, I wasn’t thinking. I guess I assumed that somehow my parents would be able to afford the payments after college and they wouldn’t be that bad. I doubt, at the time, that I even thought that far into it. At that point, prom and (ART COLLEGE) as an idea were the biggest thoughts in my head. What was going to happen to my relationship with my Towson boyfriend? He was already talking getting an off-campus apartment together somewhere between the schools and commuting, and I was already thinking about all of the cute art boys I’d seen at the open house for the entering class. I had ‘bigger’ issues then.

I can’t remember if anyone ever told me how much four years at ANY decent art school would end up costing. I don’t remember if anyone ever sat me down and told me that these loans would be in MY name, too, and that I couldn’t actually afford to buy a house or that I wouldn’t qualify for a home loan if I still had so much debt after college. I’m not sure that, even if anyone HAD said those things to me, it would have mattered.

I mention these things because of what my job became once I began working for the school. I was, effectively, the angel of financial aid death. If you were an accepted incoming freshman that didn’t rank so high on our list or couldn’t afford the tuition, who had asked for more money, then you probably would get a call from me during what we call the ‘negotiations process’. I had other jobs as well, but this one was all mine and no one else’s. No one wanted to touch it.

The process came during that point just after high school seniors got their acceptance and financial aid packages from our college, when all of the students and parents were doing what countless magazines and college websites had told them to do: whatever you are offered, ask for more, it never hurts to ask.

For the most part, those sites and articles are correct, we have special reserves for just such occasions, to help the best students match that last few thousand dollars in order to make ‘the dream’ (kickass art college) a reality.

The term ‘starving artist’ doesn’t only apply to professionals post-graduation. A lot of our most wanted students were coming from low to middle-income homes and already couldn’t afford us. Only the most well-off students could, actually, and their parents still wanted free money as well. We have a wonderful endowment, wonderful donors and serious supporters, so there were plenty of scholarships and grants to be had, but never enough when your school wants the best of the best and to make it affordable for everyone.

People have these conspiracy-theory style visions of our college’s president building an indoor pool in his second mansion, of our financial aid office being high-paid misanthropic officials. They know nothing. Our president drives a beat-up red Toyota pickup from the 80’s to school and parks next to the better cars of the faculty. He wears practically the same thing every day, even though he is by no means starving.

He fights the board every year when it comes to raising tuition and only ever settles on the smallest amount possible. And unlike many larger colleges that only send out form letters and make you schedule an appointment to meet with a Financial Aid rep who barely knows how to pronounce your name, we had a small enough incoming class (around 400) to be able to know the intimate financial situations of each family that contacted us, and many who didn’t. We read ALL of their tax papers. We read every negotiations letter personally, reviewed every file in order, discussed the students who needed more funding over lunch and drink breaks. All day, most of the time.

Anyone that thinks we couldn’t possibly care about the fates of these kids, these families, has no idea what it’s like to have to tell upward of 80 kids each year that they can’t afford college, and we won’t help their family into financial ruin. Try telling your 16-year-old that their dream can’t come true, that santa isn’t real, that they’re just not able to afford this college, their dream school. We might only work hard hours and overtime for 6 months of the year, but they are ridiculously emotional and trying. And they never get better. With an economic crisis, they only got worse each year that I was there.

It was my job to call the ‘Nos’. The Nos were that group of students who had asked for more money, who we couldn’t help. Sometimes they were low-ranked. Sometimes they were decently ranked and just really couldn’t afford the school. I felt like a grief counselor most of the time. By this point, many of the people I’d be calling were students I’d spoken to personally, who knew I’d gone to the same school. How old I was. Once negotiations started, I’d try to prepare some of the kids and parents. You just know some situations can’t end well.

Try being one of the people these kids consider ‘lucky’. 26 and denied a home loan because of outstanding college debt, because I went to my dream school. And by ‘outstanding’, I mean under $30k overall left to pay between three different lenders on low-interest loans. Half of these kids must have hated me or what I was saying, knowing that somehow, I’d been able to make it work. My $30k debt after four years of school was pocket change compared to what these kids would be saddled with after just two years. By the time I left, the interest rates for some loans were nearing 8% and students were looking at a minimum of $175k without interest after four years. For a fine arts degree. Yeah, it was the same everywhere, but… just, no.

To a lot of these students, ART COLLEGE was the only option they could imagine. I think in high school we’re kind of taught to believe that if it’s not a ‘good school’, then the degree isn’t worth anything. I’d tell them that it was a farce, that it didn’t matter what school they went to, because their work would speak for them more than any college’s name would. I told them that my degree got me a lot of interviews, but never had it gotten me a job I’d applied for. Sometimes, even my young voice of reason wasn’t enough for them.

At times like these, I’d tell them about my sister. My sister is two years younger than me and went to a community college. She has her AA in Photography. No Bachelor’s degree. My sister has had a steady job for the past 4 or 5 years working as a photographer for one of the best employers in the nation: the military. My sister OWNS her condo. Compare that to me, the 4-year degree holding firstborn who was denied a home loan and has only had temp jobs in my field of expertise, graphic design. Everything about the two of us is opposite: our modus operandi, our incomes, our job history, what is stereotypically expected of each of us based on our degrees and colleges. I don’t, I would never, begrudge her any of it. I am so fucking proud of my sister for doing what she wanted to do against all forms of adversity and being amazingly successful. People think I’m successful for going to college, leaving an asshole boyfriend and moving to Germany. My sister is my role model. She did everything we are taught should spell ‘bad outcome’ and is a home-owning 27-year-old with a good job and a great boyfriend.

I love my life, but fighting for things all the time didn’t lead where I expected it would. I am so happy here and wouldn’t change a thing, but it is really important for the students looking to go to college to know this: it’s not the school you go to that makes you successful, or a great artist. It’s what you do with what you are able to get.

It’s what and who you are that makes you great. Not the price tag of the school.

Save your money, take more classes than you could possibly need at a less expensive school, and pay for your future in the process. $175k in student loans is no good for anyone. And quite honestly, NO college, no experience at college is worth that much. You will be great wherever you go, as long as you apply yourself.

Posted in: art