In Praise of the Safety School

My name is Peter, and I work at Magoosh doing Business Development and Sales. I used to teach high school math (your favorite!), and I joined the Magoosh team after going to business school. For those of you who can count, that means that I’m old. But, look — I can use gifs!

How do you do, fellow kids?

So I’m pretty hip.

Anyway, when I was in high school, I was probably like a lot of you reading this blog: high achieving, ambitious, and so, so ready to get out of town.

I gotta get out of here. I think I'm going to lose it.

I was bright, had good SAT scores, a solid GPA, and big goals. My dream school was UC Berkeley, but I also applied to top colleges all over the East Coast. As an Arizona native, I was desperate to go out of state. Some place with history, status, and summers that weren’t four trillion degrees. Most important, I wanted a big brand-name university, a school that, just by putting it on my resume, would tell the world I was smart.

You guys, I'm like really smart now, you don't even know.

Despite getting into my top choices, because of the financial situation in my family I soon realized that the only viable option was to stay in-state at the University of Arizona. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the best.

So for all of you who think that staying in-state will ruin your future forever, I present to you the top four reasons to seriously consider your safety school:

1. The cost

Here’s a fact: going to the highest ranked college you can get into is going to cost you a lot of money. If it’s a reach for you to even get admitted, they’re not going to offer you financial aid. Safety schools, on the other hand, have a strong incentive to cough up the cash. Top schools can cost more than $50,000 per year just for tuition.

Guy throwing money out of a car.

In my case, because of merit scholarships and need-based grants, Arizona was free. State schools are mandated by law in most states to remain affordable for in-state residents, so chances are you’ll get a better deal locally than you will going to a private school across the country.

2. The people

Since Arizona was my safety school, I imagined that I would be, like, the smartest person who ever went there.


Not even close. From day one, I was surrounded by people waaaay smarter than I was (including my lovely wife, whom I met moving into the dorms freshman year). The students and professors at UofA were just as intelligent and ambitious as the people I knew at much fancier schools. They were also a lot more diverse — both racially and socioeconomically*. It’s a myth that state schools attract the unambitious; rather they tend to attract people who are either unable or unwilling to pay private university tuition.

3. The education

My senior year, I studied abroad in Budapest, Hungary. In my program, I went to school with students from top colleges like Harvard, Yale, Pomona, and others. My classmates were all incredibly smart. But you know what? They hadn’t learned any more in college than I had. When I enrolled at business school at Cal it was the same again — I was surrounded by smart people who went to top colleges, but my undergraduate education had prepared me just as well theirs prepared them.

I know what things are.

The US has an amazing network of colleges and universities — by far the best in the world. Take advantage of it!

4. Your future

After graduating from Arizona, I taught with Teach for America. Then I went to business school and just last month completed my MBA at Berkeley. TFA and Berkeley are both extremely selective programs, and my degree from a state school did not prevent from pursuing either.

You ... got into Harvard Law?

What, like it's hard?

The number of people enrolled in graduate school jumped 32 percent in the last decade. Depending on your career goals, the college you choose for undergrad may not be the last college you’ll ever go to. If you do really want a brand-name university on your resume, grad school might be the better time to get it.

All this is not to say that going to a top-ranked school is a bad choice. You can get a great education at an Ivy League school. You can meet smart people and you can prepare yourself for the career of your dreams. But you can also do all that at a state school at a fraction of the cost. If you are an excellent student with big ambitions, you’ll do great things. So if you don’t get into or can’t afford your top choice, it might actually be the best thing for you.

* National Center for Education Statistics

Photo Credit: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8

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  • Peter Poer

    Peter helps make sure Magoosh students have the best possible content. A proud Arizona Wildcat and Teach for America alum, he worked as an instructional coach before getting an MBA at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He is passionate about student achievement and educational equity. Also prime numbers. Peter enjoys cooking, running (slowly), and going to bed comically early.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

4 Responses to In Praise of the Safety School

  1. Rachel Wisuri
    Rachel July 10, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    I looooove this post! 😀

    • Peter Poer
      Peter July 10, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

      Thanks, Rachel!

  2. Sid July 10, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    Hey. Now days, top colleges like Harvard, give a lot of financial aid to those who cannot afford it. It’s statistics show that 100% of it’s student’s financial needs are met, 80% get some sort of financial aid, and 20% get a full ride!

    • Peter Poer
      Peter July 10, 2014 at 10:52 pm #

      Hi Sid! That’s a really great point. Most universities (including Harvard) offer some form of financial aid to the majority of their students. Even with financial aid, though, you may still end up with a lot of student loans if you choose to attend an expensive private university. Even half-off at Harvard is still more than in-state tuition at most state schools. And, if you’re getting into Harvard, you’re probably also going to get merit-based scholarships at most state schools.

      Each situation will be different for each student. My opinion is that if you get into your dream school and can afford to go there, then you absolutely should. But if you either don’t get in or don’t feel comfortable taking on $100K+ in student loans, staying in-state can be a great option.

      And if you’re one of the 20% of Harvard admits that gets a full-ride, then go for it! 🙂

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