Column: Did I choose the wrong college?

Published May 18, 2018

I sometimes think I went to the wrong college. By many measures — most of them financial — my choice to attend Cornell was not the smartest one.

I applied to only two colleges, the University of Florida and Cornell, because applying to college is an expensive process, and I didn't know about fee waivers. What I did know was that thanks to my good grades and various state initiatives meant to entice students to stay in the state for college, I had an excellent financial aid package from the University of Florida: full tuition, room and board covered, the additional outside scholarships I'd earned going toward books and other expenses. I was about to be the first in my family to go to college, and it wouldn't cost us a cent.

Then, in April, I got into Cornell. I now know that the financial aid package was also strong, but it didn't feel that way then: There was a subsidized loan of $4,000 a year in my name and an additional "expected family contribution."

The question for us became: Did I need to go to the more expensive school? Would it make a real difference in my life? My parents had listened carefully to everything the school had said about what this education could mean for me. We intuited that it would be an investment in a future that we'd be foolish to pass up. There was no way to know whether it would make a real difference in my life. My parents remortgaged their home to cover what Cornell calculated they could afford.

I called my mom in Miami recently to ask her why, in the end, they'd agreed to let me turn down a free ride. "Don't you remember?" she said. She reminded me of a Cornell recruitment event in Coral Gables, an affluent area in South Florida, held at the large home of a successful and proud alum.

"Me and your father couldn't sleep that night, we were talking, thinking, okay, we're two stupid people — not stupid, you know what I mean — and those people, they were just —" She trailed off, then added, "We wanted that for you, for you to have all that, be all that."

I asked her if she had found the event manipulative, and she said: "Of course it was! That's how the world works!" I didn't know yet that what we were deciding on was a kind of access and privilege that I didn't yet understand. My parents, having worked trade jobs their whole lives, knew better.

She asked me whether I thought I'd be where I am now if I'd made a different decision. I honestly don't know. Where I am now is the Midwest, a newly tenured professor at a Big Ten school. My best friend from high school, who graduated second in our class and was supposed to be my Gator roommate, went to the University of Florida and loved it. She has a fulfilling career, rewarding friendships and a gorgeous house in a South Florida neighborhood we'd both always dreamed of living in: There is no "but" to alter these facts.

Was it worth it? Did I need to go to the more expensive school?

Here is my answer: When I started high school, my mother took me to an orthodontist. I had inherited my parents' jacked-up teeth. After poking around in my mouth and taking impressions of my teeth, the orthodontist declared that I did not need braces — my bite was mostly fine, so braces would be primarily for cosmetic reasons. Because we'd already identified ourselves as the kind of people who would need help affording orthodontics, the doctor thought this news would come as a relief to my mother. It did not: She started crying.

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"If she needed them, in my head that would make it easier to pay for it," she said. "Everyone is getting braces. Someday they'll all be people with straight teeth. I don't want her to not have that."

She wanted to give me an advantage she never had, and this itself counted as a need — it had to. She knew that people might make assumptions about me based on something superficial. My braces came off my junior year of high school. I grind my teeth in my sleep, unconsciously undoing the work that made them straight. My bottom retainer no longer fits, thanks to a wisdom tooth I foolishly chose to leave in my head. It has all but pushed my bottom teeth back to where they started.

Jennine Capó Crucet, assistant professor of English and ethnic studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wrote a novel "Make Your Home Among Strangers."

© 2018 New York Times