Student loan debt fear made me skip fancy schools for a free one

student loan debtI can remember being 17, sitting in our Michigan farmhouse, across the kitchen table from my mother. "You don't have to go there just because you got a scholarship," she said. "You can go to any other college you want. We'll make it work."

A feeling of utter practicality took over my brain. Paying thousands of dollars in student loan debt or going to school for free?

I chose free.

Thinking back, I'm still surprised by my decision. Even though I came from a podunk town in rural Michigan, and my advanced-placement classmates chose prestigious universities like Brandeis, University of Michigan, MIT, Yale, and Northwestern, I chose a mid-sized, not-particularly-academic state school because it offered me four years tuition and room and board. I never looked back.

Now I'm in my 20s, and my colleagues have prestigious diplomas and mountains of student loan debt. Me? I only have the debt that I manage to rack up on my credit card each month. But didn't I get an inferior education? I don't think so.

My alma mater, Central Michigan University, has about 20,000 students in a mid-sized town in the middle of the state. In 1987, the school was number 16 on Playboy's list of top party schools. Not exactly the mark of academic distinction.

Granted, a lot has changed since I graduated, but no one looks at my resume and says "Ah, Central Michigan – That's a great school." So why do I think I still made the right choice?

All of my professors knew my name by the second week of class. Why? Well, frankly, I was one of the only students in the room who cared about my education, and my professors responded to that. I got hours of one-on-one attention, invitations to attend conferences and help with their research. So many professors wanted me to study in their department that it's no wonder I changed my major eight times.

My friends at better schools spent most of their four years in large lecture halls crammed with students. The professors didn't know their names. They were lucky if they got an attentive T.A.

I've also learned that money may buy you a first-class education, but it can't buy you a work ethic. My first summer internship in Washington D.C., I was paired with two interns from prestigious colleges – Bryn Mawr and Duke. I was intimidated by them at first, but soon realized they were two of the laziest people I had ever met. Within weeks, I was planning everything we were in charge of and making sure it ran smoothly. They only thing they seemed to plan for was happy hour.

My lack of a prestigious education may mean I have to work harder to prove myself, but working hard is something I do anyway.

To those critics who say my education may keep me from even getting in the door – I doubt it. I applied to one of the most selective post-undergrad programs in the United States – Teach for America, which accepts about 15% of its applicants, most of them Ivy League – and got in without a single question about my educational background.

I've lived my post-college life without the threat of student loan debt. While friends of mine had to pass on jobs they wanted for a job that would pay off their loans, I was able to do things I wanted to do: start a non-profit arts organization, move to a big city, and nurture myself as a writer.

But what about the numbers? Don't students who go to more selective institutions end up making more?

Well, yes and no. If you take the whole of the student body of a lower school and compare it to a higher ranking school, yes – the students from the higher ranking school will out-earn the others by tens of thousands.

But when you take a closer look – if you compare students of the same aptitude that went to either school – that disparity goes away, according to studies from the National Bureau of Economics Research. If you're a good student at one school, you'll be a good student at another. The only group that doesn't fit that pattern is very low-income students, who seem to see a large income boost by attending a more selective school.

I'm not knocking those who choose to take on student loan debt to get a great education. I'm sure that Harvard would have been a different kind of stimulating environment, and it's one that I definitely didn't experience.

Going to college is about growing up, taking charge of your life and making your own decisions. Whether you decide to spend more money on a selective education or not, take the time to educate yourself so you know exactly what you're getting into, and exactly what you'll be paying out in the end.

In the mean time, I'm college-educated and debt free, and I don't regret that decision one bit.

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