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The Value of a Second-Tier College Degree

When I was 19, I took a job as a nanny in New York City in exchange for tuition to a city school. It wasn’t my first choice college, but it was what my employers were willing to pay for; there was no way I could afford a more prestigious, expensive university on my own and I knew it was a bad idea to take on a mountain of college debt.

The city school was a commuter school, meaning everyone who went there worked. It wasn’t the kind of place where students hung around after class, attending football games and fraternity parties. I, like most of the students, went to class then went to work and wrote papers late at night. That was fine by me — it’s pretty much the way I’m wired. Besides, I knew my real education — the one that would take me further than any piece of paper — was getting to live and work in New York City.

Four years later, I graduated debt-free and got a job. I’m now doing what I was born to do — write and publish books (albeit with shifting success!) In the years since college, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to go to a “real” university, where the walls are covered in ivy, where they have things like “quads” (to this day, I still don’t know what a quad is), rowing teams and great expanses of green for undergrads to hang out and just enjoy being a student.

It was only after I started working in women’s magazines in Manhattan that I realized the premium placed on where you went to school. It established a very subtle social pecking order I was all too aware of every time I stepped onto the elevator at the Conde Nast building at 4 Times Square. But I was also acutely aware that even though my colleagues and I may have graduated from institutions of varying degrees of prestige — Princeton, Skidmore, University of Michigan, my good ol’ commuter school on 68th and Lex — we ended up in the same editorial pool, so what difference, really, did it make where I went to school? We all ended up in the same cubicles editing and writing the same copy.

This made me feel good about my choices. Or at least good enough. Maybe I didn’t need a $150,000 education to “make it” in the conventional sense. Maybe a top dollar degree — especially in light of the roughly $1 trillion student loan debt in the United States today, according to American Student Assistance — is simply an extension of our consumerist society — an illusion of value; the pricier it is, the better it must be. In many respects, this is true. A higher price tag typically pays for a smaller student body and class sizes, better teachers and a more prestigious degree, but it doesn’t automatically translate to a lifetime of higher earning power.

I hope my own daughters are able to make the same sort of shrewd cost/benefit analysis I did by the time they’re starting to think about college. Thankfully, we’re able to give them a leg up with the G.I. Bill, which we have access to due to my husband Jake’s more than 10 years of military service and two active duty deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The “post 9/11 G.I. Bill,” as it’s called, pays for 36 months, or 4 years, of higher education which we can divide between both girls. Like a lot of parents, we’ve already started saving for their college funds because we want to be able to help them for the time the G.I. Bill doesn’t cover.

But even as I like to think I’m taking all the necessary precautions as far as my children’s education is concerned, I’m anxious that the G.I.Bill won’t even be there for them by the time they start filling out college applications. With all this talk of military cuts and curtailing veteran’s benefits — curse you, Washington! — you never know. They may end up at a similar second-tier — okay, third-tier — commuter college like myself.

But at least I know they won’t be the worse for it.

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