Student turned down all 8 Ivies to go to a state school, and we should celebrate it

First, I should note I am a proud state-school grad. (Go Dawgs!) In a sea of Ivy-League degrees in Washington, it has never seemed to limit my opportunities, and it gives me a special camaraderie with the other state-school grads in the business. But I applaud Ronald Nelson Jr., not just because of my personal affinity for state schools, but because he’s a really smart young man who made a really smart decision.

Nelson is a phenom— a sky-high GPA and SAT scores, a talented alto sax player, student body president, National Merit Scholar, among other honors. And, he was accepted at all the Ivy League schools. Wow.

In the end, he decided on the University of Alabama and rejected offers from all eight Ivy League schools.

Nelson also rejected offers from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, New York University, Vanderbilt, and Washington University in St. Louis.

He decided to pass on these big names in favor of UA for two big reasons: He got a full ride from Alabama and got into its selective honors program.

“It took a lot of soul searching for me to push that first ‘accept’ button for Alabama,” Nelson said. “Of course there’s a bit of uncertainty.”

Nelson and his family don’t want to take on the debt the more prestigious universities would have left him, especially because he wants to go to medical school post-undergrad. His parents’ wisdom shows where the kid got it:

“With people being in debt for years and years, it wasn’t a burden that Ronald wanted to take on and it wasn’t a burden that we wanted to deal with for a number of years after undergraduate,” Ronald Sr. said. “We can put that money away and spend it on his medical school, or any other graduate school.”

Looking long term, Nelson doesn’t think his decision will impact his chances of getting in to a top medical school or other graduate program. After speaking with his teachers and guidance counselors, Nelson said, he realized that “any undergraduate school can prepare you for a graduate program. It’s just determined on how much work you’re willing to put in.”

Business Insider first reported this story, calling Nelson’s decision “brilliant.” But I stumbled on the tale at today told in a slightly different way. More Shakespearean tragedy:


The premise is that such a talented student should not have to reject all the Ivies in favor of a state school out of fear of crippling debt. The story gets it right as far as the insane rise of college costs. Colleges have utterly failed to keep their costs down, and they should have to pay some price for it. But they almost never do, partly because of this mindset—that everyone should go to the college of their dreams, no matter what the cost, without a care for cost-benefit analyses, or how long it might take them to pay off the debts they accrue. The “solution” proposed for all of this is unlimited easy government-backed debt, which puts more students in more debt, puts those who didn’t accrue debt on the hook for those who flake, and incentivizes colleges to keep hiking costs with no end in sight.

On the other hand, when a sought-after student like Ronald Nelson does a cost-benefit analysis and concludes he does not need the Ivies, perhaps they will think about how to contain costs in the future. It will require more than that for a cultural shift, but Nelson is a good start and a good role model for other students who should be making the same decision. There will be no cost containment if the Ivies are always considered the only option for students like Nelson.


While Nelson will certainly be fine, eminently qualified students like him shouldn’t be forced into backbreaking loans. For America to retain its preeminent place in the world, its young people can’t start off their professional lives mired in debt.

Nelson wasn’t forced, and he won’t start his professional life mired in debt. He’ll do great, have a fun college experience, and come out $100K ahead of most of his peers. Told you he was smart.