The ugly reality of not being accepted by the college of your choice or being denied financial aid could feel like the end of the world. But don't despair. You have options. You can have an amazing, productive and worthwhile higher education experience no matter what the scenario. Here are a few:
1. You didn't get into the one college you have always dreamed of: Calm down. Hopefully you applied to other colleges that did accept you. Accept the best one. The prescription for success still applies. Work hard. Don't party too much. Get involved with research and activities, engage with your professors, take a variety of courses that pique your interest. Learn the mega-skills of discovery and connection. Take full advantage of the free resources available to you. You'll learn a lot about yourself in the next two years, at which time you can decide whether to stay or apply to one of those great colleges that rejected you in the first place. You could choose to transfer, or you may choose to stay. A key to success is to learn to make your market wherever you are.
2. You were accepted by both an expensive private school and a less expensive state school: Your decision will depend on your family's own financial situation and whether or not you can get financial aid. I don't want to disparage private schools with fantastic and enduring reputations, but I do want to encourage you not to let the institutional name override everything. In our uncertain job market, going to an excellent state institution and graduating with little or no debt is really smart. And, if you are thinking of graduate school in your future, keep in mind that tuition is often more expensive without a real option of staying local.
3. You are accepted, but can't afford tuition: Continue researching scholarships and financial aid. There's more than you dreamed of. Don't be lazy! In addition, consider a college that offers a co-op program like the pioneering Drexel or University of Cincinnati where you alternate working for a semester with going to school. Search online. Or, consider taking out a loan and applying for programs after graduation like Teach For America, which in some states will reimburse your tuition.
Consider low-cost colleges with superior rankings that are often overlooked. For example, if you are a music or art student, both The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Cooper-Union School of Art in Manhattan offer free tuition.
Some universities will allow you to attend for free if you are an employee. While you may not want to work in the maintenance department or wash dishes in a cafeteria, it's certainly a better option than not going to college at all. Check it out. There are plenty of on-campus jobs, both full and part time that can assist with your college fees.
4. You didn't get in to any 4-year college: Don't despair. Try a community college, full or part time. You will find that your instructors are interesting and on your side. Work hard. Take the general credits necessary for a four-year college for a fraction of the price. Even in community college, study hard, write papers that interest you, talk with your professors, don't slide into feeling second-best because this wasn't your first choice. Work as though it is. If you do well after one or two years, you can always transfer to the four-year college where will you have to continue developing yourself anyway. Like everything in life, it's what you do that counts.
Compare a student at an Ivy who does nothing more than attend class and get good grades with another student with equally good grades at a state or local university who becomes an editor of the campus newspaper, a student leader who regularly converses with their professors. When it comes to launching a career or applying for graduate school, activities, experiences and networks all count more than you think.
We go to college to have a better life, meaning a professional career and a community of friends. But just how important is the institution where you choose to get that degree? Sure, Ivy League schools, the Yale's and Harvard's of the world, carry a status that employers find impressive and assuring, especially if they themselves went there. But I will argue that a case a can be made for a state university or local college -- if you're willing to be an active participant. College is what you make of it.
Make your luck happen!