Will Attending Public University Limit Grad School Opportunities?

Question: My son is a National Merit Finalist and may attend U of Alabama for the scholarship. Money is very tight right now, but I am worried that attending a less-ranked school will hurt his odds of attending a top Ph.D program. Will it?

You son can be a star at Alabama and position himself well for graduate school admission--and paid fellowships--in fact, just as well as if he were at Harvard or Princeton. Grad school admission committees appreciate diversity, as undergrad committees do, and this "diversity" includes seeking students who hail from a range of alma maters.

Moreover, because you won't be as financially strapped during your son's undergrad years if he heads to Tuscaloosa, this may give him the flexibility to pursue unpaid and low-paying internships or research positions during the summer, which will help him hone in on areas of academic interest while looking great on his grad school applications, and he won't be hamstrung by the need to make a lot of money during the summer months.

Keep in mind, however, that although your son will have all or many of the same opportunities in life, whether he attends Alabama or a more prestigious school, he may always look back on his choice and worry that he didn't make the right one, perhaps even blaming you for the decision. I know several people who are extremely successful in a range of orbits and yet some of them, who attended less-celebrated colleges, still seem to wonder (at least occasionally … it’s more of a sporadic concern than a nagging obsession) what might have been, had they gone to a snazzier school. I, however, marvel at their accomplishments and try to reassure them that they've lived impressive and meaningful lives. But steel yourself for the possibility that your son may always harbor at least a few fleeting regrets about his road not taken. Even so, it sounds like he should ride the Crimson Tide.

Good luck with the National Merit outcome and with the tough decisions it may spawn!

(posted 3/27/2012)