Why I Chose My Last-Choice College (Hint: Money)

by Rachel Ahrnsen

As a young whippersnapper, I was obsessed with going away to college, and my narrow world had always consisted entirely of Catholic Cincinnati. I had never been on a plane, nor eaten Indian food, nor spent more than a few days away from home. Higher education would mean freedom and adventure, and in exotic places like Bloomington, Indiana or Columbus, Ohio. In the tradition of wide-eyed Midwestern kids throughout history, I decided a degree was the ticket out.

I spent countless hours Googling colleges and daydreaming about walking through the images of rust leaves and brick walls. It was what I had been working toward my entire life. Every diorama, every book, every frustrating algebra problem was for this. My parents were both the first in their families to go to college and they heavily emphasized the importance of education. Two things were always understood: I would earn a degree, and I would pay for it myself.

So in high school, I diligently tallied up extracurriculars and stayed up until midnight every night studying to preserve my high GPA. I knew I had to get scholarships to go to college. I never stayed out late, drank alcohol, or even met a boy (I wasn’t living in a hermitage, but I did attend an all-girls school). All these things were put aside. Instead, teenage rebellion took the form of marathoning “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” and eating Sour Patch Kids until my mouth was raw while studying mitosis.

Only one major obstacle loomed: The SAT. Test day came. Wearing a sweatshirt that I had sleepily shrugged on backwards and clenching my photo I.D, I sat to take the test. During the exam, I wrote a moving essay on Lindsay Lohan and broke out in sweat over the math section. I tried my best and left it all out on the scantron.

My score was high — change-my-life-forever high. I applied for National Merit and was accepted. Soon, universities across the country were wooing me. As a perennially awkward person more familiar with books than boys, I was easily susceptible to this kind of attention. Universities were my first suitors, sending me love notes in the mail, phone calls and expensive gifts (like a place to live for four years).

Some schools, like Oklahoma and Alabama, sent embossed envelopes with offers for full scholarships before I even knew these schools existed. Just fill out an application, and we’ll give you the equivalent of $100,000! My mom says she still regrets the day she opened that envelope from Alabama, because it eventually took me eight hours away.

I toyed with applying to Alabama because the scholarship was so damn good. And it was closer than Oklahoma. But: It was Alabama. I had joked about going to Alabama as soon as I received their offer. My perception of it was the opposite of everything I wanted in a school. Alabama was heavily Greek, had a bad civil rights reputation and was obsessed with football. I poked fun at it constantly.

“Rachel, did you ever apply to Alabama?” my mom asked one night while washing dishes.

“Ughh, no I don’t want to, it’s not like I’m ever going there,” I said.

“Rachel, you have to be realistic, and today’s the last day? Just do it.”


With a half hour left until the application deadline, I sluggishly completed a simple online application to Alabama. How much my fate hinged on overcoming teenage laziness. But I had college application overload. I had applied to seven schools, listed below in order of desirability:

  • Indiana University
  • Tulane
  • Ohio University
  • The Ohio State University
  • Miami University
  • University of Cincinnati
  • The University of Alabama

I received generous scholarships from all the schools I applied to. But $28,000 a year isn’t enough when tuition, room, board, books, and fees (not to mention food) add up to $50,000, as was the case with Tulane. I began to realize that I might need to defer some dreams if I didn’t want to be deeply in debt.

A few terrifying articles about student loans later, and I knew in my gut that it would be irresponsible to accept anything less than the full package. The University of Cincinnati and University of Alabama had both offered me the super-duper deluxe college package: tuition, a stipend for studying abroad, free room and board, and a free laptop. I could stay in Cincinnati with many of my friends and get my laundry done at home…or…or…or I could go to Alabama.

I remember an early spring morning, the trees still wet from winter, when a friend asked me,

“So, do you think you’ll actually go to Alabama?” while we drove to school. I scoffed.

“Yeah, I’m going to move to Alabama and become obsessed with football and start saying ‘y’all.’ That would be hilarious.” I have since learned not to make statements like this out loud. Fate cannot resist them.

My parents urged me to at least tour the campus, so we drove down past the Mason-Dixon line. When I arrived, I was carrying with me hundreds of negative stereotypes. I wasn’t alone: My mom thought the campus was going to be a trailer park filled with books. We were gobsmacked. Flowering pink trees lined charming brick walkways through an immaculately manicured quad. The professors we met were at the top of their fields. There were interracial and gay couples strolling hand in hand and no banjos in sight. My stereotypes were being whalloped (though there was a lot of fried chicken).

Everyone we met was the perfect embodiment of Southern hospitality. The resources that would be available to me were astounding, as Alabama was swollen with football money. The dorms where I would be living looked like hotels, with a separate bedroom for each student. They served steak and peach cobbler in the dining hall. There was a waterslide at the rec pool. It was looking a lot like paradise.

This experience was a valuable lesson in showing up. If I had never given Alabama a chance, my world would not have been blown wide open. Hell, I kind of wish I had given Oklahoma a chance, who knows what I would have found there. I came back to Ohio two pounds heavier from all the fried food, and with a radically different perspective.

I don’t remember how I came to the decision to attend Alabama. I do recall a vague sense of, “Aw, heck, why not?” I probably just wanted to shock everyone. Also, I had recently watched, “Big Fish,” and was filled with romantic notions about falling in love in the South, walking with my beau underneath glowing white magnolia petals. That actually happened, so basing life choices off of a Tim Burton movie was solid decision making.

My friends and extended family were taken aback by my choice. There was a lot of disbelieving head shakes and relatives saying, “Now, don’t ya forget us when yer down in ‘Bama!” in truly awful fake accents. But as I registered for classes and bought my books, I didn’t feel scared. I was excited.

Honestly, I was more than excited. I was overjoyed, gleeful, euphoric. I felt like Charlie after he found Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. I hadn’t dared to hope for such a generous scholarship. Even now, I remain astounded by my luck. Five years later, I still live here in Dixie, 45 minutes away from my former last-choice school. I firmly believe that Alabama was the perfect fit for me, and I’m glad I decided to follow the money.

This story is part of our College Month series.

Rachel is a freelance writer living in the unexpected paradise of Birmingham, Alabama. She is frantically attempting to keep her basil plant alive.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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