Photograph by Jeff Harris for MONEY
By Dena Ross Higgins
April 28, 2016

I think everyone on my Brooklyn block could hear my parents laughing the day I asked them about my college fund. What college fund? It didn’t exist. It never existed.

I must have been 13 or 14 at the time. Old enough to understand that my blue-collar parents with their city jobs had trouble paying their mortgage every month, but too naive to realize they didn’t have a bank account with a few grand stashed away for me.

I always did well in school, but hadn’t seriously considered college until those early teen years, when a close friend’s sister went to Wake Forest University and reported back how fun it was to be on her own. I couldn’t wait to get away and be an adult.

I heard about St. Bonaventure University from that same friend. The small school in the middle of nowhere, New York – about six and a half hours from the city — didn’t sound so appealing at first, until I learned they had a great journalism program and they were giving me a generous scholarship and financial aid package. Oh, and at the time it was ranked by Princeton Review as one of the biggest party schools in the country. Decision made!

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I loved my time at St. Bonaventure — I learned a lot, made a handful of close friends, went to lots of parties. I was even a DJ at the campus radio station.

But during my sophomore year, I decided to apply to New York University as a transfer student. NYU rejected me when I applied as a high school senior, so part of me was just wondering if I’d be accepted. Sure enough, they did, offering me a spot for the next semester. But the acceptance came with a catch – the financial aid package was horrible. They gave me a laughably small scholarship and grant. Everything else would be covered with private loans.

I tried to rationalize the choice. Suddenly I felt I wasn’t getting a great education at St. Bonaventure, and I wasn’t making connections that would benefit me later. All of a sudden the school where I was having the time of my life wasn’t good enough. It didn’t matter that I was thriving there, that I was getting excellent grades, that the professors liked me, that I had friends.

As with most stories about regrets, this one includes a love interest. I had a boyfriend back home, convincing me NYU was the best option. It was the only option, really. That debt would be so worth it in the long run!

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I decided to go to NYU. And that guy? We broke up two months after I transferred.

I did miss the “college experience” since I was going to school locally, so I got a cheap apartment with a friend a few blocks from my parents’ house (back then, Brooklyn wasn’t as cool or expensive as it is now), supplementing the money I earned at my part-time job with loan money I put away in the bank and credit card cash advances (I know, I know…). At NYU I was a commuter student and didn’t make many friends. But I was OK with that. I went to class, studied, worked, and during my senior year, interned at a big media company.

It’s been 14 years since I graduated, getting a B.A. in Journalism & Mass Communication. But every time I look at that diploma hanging up on my home office wall, I’m filled with disappointment instead of pride. It’s because of that expensive, fancy degree that I’m still paying off my student loans. I pay more than the minimum per month, too. In fact, I pay about half of the average U.S. mortgage payment per month.

Did I get some connections and guidance and an education at NYU that I think helped me in the long run? Yes. But could I have made some of those same connections and received career guidance and a quality education at SBU? Probably. I just would have had to push myself more and been more proactive about getting what I wanted out of my education experience. What I do know is that had I stayed where I was, I would have turned out fine. Maybe even better than fine. Perhaps I’d have the great career I have now, but also own a home instead of renting an overpriced apartment.

Read More: Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Attend My Pricey Dream School

College decision day is right around the corner. To this year’s high school graduates, I cannot stress enough the importance of doing your financial homework. Look at the numbers – really look at the numbers and see whether your financial aid package is one which will allow you to leave school with minimal debt (and doesn’t put your family in a hole, either) or whether you’re willing to sacrifice your financial freedom down the road for a degree that doesn’t guarantee you a job once you graduate. And don’t kid yourself — none of them do.

Higher education is what you make of it. There are good professors at every school who will tell you which books and blogs to read (in addition to the ones in the curriculum), who will guide you in getting internships, and will help facilitate introductions to people in your desired industry. That’s the stuff that really matters.

I’m not kidding when I say that at the rate I’m going, by the time I finish paying off my student loans, my one-year-old twin boys will be starting college. But maybe I’ll just offer to buy them a hovercraft if they get their education for free on Youtube instead of putting their dad and me in hock for another 20 years.

Dena Ross Higgins is a senior digital media producer at a cable TV network. She has written about entertainment and pop culture for outlets including the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsweek, Wetpaint, Beliefnet, and other publications.

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