The following is a post by Katharine Rudzitis, a Yakezie Writing Contest winner. She wrote a thoughtful post after winning second place entitled, “Prestigious Expensive University Or A Free Ride Elsewhere?” on April 11, 2011 when she was still in high school. The post discussed her decision between Amherst College for $60,000 or Macaulay Honors College of CUNY for free and a stipend to study abroad. Here’s a first hand follow up.

Two years ago, I faced a difficult decision.  I had to choose between attending a state school with a full-ride scholarship, or paying approximately $5,000 a year to attend Amherst College, which is consistently ranked the #1 or #2 Liberal Arts College in the USA.  After talking to my mother, college counselor, and a handful of peers, I read through all the comments that my original post on Yakezie received.  After a stressful few weeks, I decided that I would give Amherst a college try.

Once I’d packed all my belongings into a car, only one hurdle remained: figuring out how I would come up with $20,000 over four years. I was opposed to student loans because I wanted to escape the average undergraduate debt of $27,000, so I decided that I would do my best to pay out-of-pocket each year. I calculated that if I made some money each summer interning, I could work 20-30 hours a week during the school year to cover the rest. Thanks to how my summers and school years have been going, I’ve saved enough to avoid loans for all four years.

While it would be nice to just spend time with friends or completing schoolwork, working during college has made the entire experience better for me. It forces me to take my education seriously. If I add up the hours I spend in class each school year, I can see that each class period costs me a few dollars more than my jobs in the library and the dining hall pay per hour. I can’t escape thinking of how much each class is “worth” over the entire semester.

I’ve loved my time at Amherst: I’ve met wonderful people, had fascinating conversations, hiked mountains before breakfast, and gotten the chance to live on my own. However, I’ve come to believe that my school, along with other top colleges, aren’t worth anything near their sticker price. For what I’ve gotten out of my first two years, I find it hard to imagine paying the $50,000 a year that colleges charge, even if my family were in a different financial situation.

My first two years at Amherst haven’t served the purpose that I thought they would. In tenth grade, I’d come to believe that high school, with its grades, tests, SAT/ACT prep, and APs, was building up to something better. College was supposed to be the doorway to my adult life, and by senior year in high school, I could not wait to cross the threshold. What I found instead was yet another holding pen before I hit the Real World: in college, I get to live in a new place, meet people I would never have encountered otherwise, and only take subjects I enjoy, but I am still stuck.

I have two more years to go before I get my diploma that shows I sat through eight semesters of classes, each of which I enjoyed, but none of which I can honestly say will translate into job skills. Even Mathematics, one of my majors, has lost some of its promise as one of the more useful fields, because computers can do the vast amount of what I’ve learned to do by hand.

I want to learn how to do my taxes, act professionally in an office, ask my boss for a raise, find an apartment, and choose a car mechanic without getting ripped off. Those are reasonable expectations for things I will encounter in the adult world, and I’m slowly learning how to handle them through internships, real-world experience, and advice from others. College hasn’t taught me how to be an adult. It’s taught me all kinds of strange facts about David Foster Wallace, some beautiful math formulas, and thanks to a mandatory alcohol education meeting, that filling a standard Solo cup to its lowest line approximates taking a shot.

Perhaps if I were learning more immediately applicable skills, I’d find a greater benefit in these four years. It seems to me that the purpose of college is just to end up with a degree, not to graduate with life skills and the ability to navigate the workforce. If this is true, then I see no justification for the five-figure fees colleges charge.

I also don’t understand why there is a $40K difference between my Amherst degree and the one I would have gotten from my other choice, a New York State school. If Amherst isn’t giving me real job skills and is instead letting me have an enjoyable time and allowing me to put down “Amherst College” on my resume, why is a SUNY school’s degree so much less likely to get me hired?  One name may be more recognizable than the other, but I see no reason why a higher-rated school is supposed to better prepare me for the workforce. I don’t feel that I’ve learned anything that could make my experience somehow superior to what I would have gone through at a lower-ranked college.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood the real reason for college. I love Amherst’s scenery, professors, classes, and general vibe, but I can’t help feeling that my four years will turn into two sentences on a resume, leaving me only with memories and no real-life skills.  I wish that college weren’t the huge milestone that it is in our culture, because it seems to exist as a means to an end; while the means is exciting, only the end matters to others.  I don’t think that my potential as an employee should be dictated by what my “Education” section contains, and I’m frustrated that there isn’t another way for me to prove myself as a young adult.

Readers, did anybody who went to an expensive private university feel the same way during college? Did your feelings change after you graduated? Would you have traded your expensive private university degree for a free ride at a much lower ranked school?

 This is Katharine’s winning essay entitled, “Memories” if interested. It’s an incredible story about loss and hope. 


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Updated for 2017 and beyond.