California Teen Getting Grief for Liking Southern Universities

I received an email yesterday from a mom in Southern California, whose daughter Nicole is getting grief about the Southern universities that she has applied to.  Karen’s email raises a lot of interesting issues including preconceived notions about schools, the tendency of some parent(s) to push kids to attend their alma mater or state schools and a lack of understanding of how you can find schools that are more affordable. Aiming too high academically, for instance, can result in a teenager getting  aid packages stuffed with $55,000 worth of loans.

I’d love for you to read Karen’s note and share your thoughts in the comment box below.  Karen covers a lot in this note and I’m eager to read what you think! I will comment on the letter in my post tomorrow.

Email from a Concerned Mom

Thank you for your advice on this website and the books.  I have tried to incorporate the knowledge that I’ve learned in helping my daughter, who is a senior. We went to South and North Carolina to visit some smaller schools first (Furman, Elon, Davidson) and took a detour to Clemson.  The other schools were too small for her and she did like Clemson – so we started to look at schools a bit larger including Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University.

With their lower costs and merit scholarships, our cost would be close to what we would pay for a University of California campus.  We are still waiting to hear back from others including Baylor University (which has a scholarship calculator on its website) and she is expecting merit aid from that school too.  I am sure she will receive flak for Baylor as well.

Nicole’s Merit Awards

Here is what she has gotten so far:

Texas Christian University (60k scholarship -15k a yr)

Southern Methodist University (48k scholarship – 12k a yr)

Clemson University (40k scholarship – 10k a yr)

University of San Diego ($0)

She has received the most negative comments about Clemson and TCU.  She really liked both schools when we visited them and both schools have Honors Colleges and Residences.  Clemson is a bit larger than what she was looking for, but the honor colleges and residences make the school seem smaller.

Why the Criticism?

I think most of the criticism is triggered by the rankings and locations – South versus Northeast.  Somehow anything in the Northeast must be better!  Also, many here in California are just not used to going to a different state for school and since many at my daughter’s school are first generation – the parents go by rankings and name. We used to live in Kansas City and most of her friends there already have selected Kansas State or University of Kansas. Our old neighbor’s daughter went to St. Olaf College. and many there also wondered why. I guess it is just that most kids usually stay close to home for college even in Kansas.

When we first started to look, the kids just made fun of her for looking at Furman and Elon – definitely schools not known out here!  I was impressed by the schools and wished she would have liked them!

We have used the tools for looking for schools with smaller class sizes, learning-based communities and those offering merit aid.  She has also learned about applying to the right schools and being realistic about matching up her grades, extracurriculars and test scores with universities.

My daughter has seen too many kids apply to schools even though they barely made the bottom of the 25-75% range. They are disappointed when they have gotten rejection letters or received no merit money.   We have also witnessed how family income comes into play.  She has seen many wealthy kids from our area get into Ivies (or other Ivy top tier) with stats a bit lower than some of her friends who were rejected even though they are National Merit scholars with perfect GPA’s and near perfect SAT’s, but who need aid.

Why Not USC?

While my daughter is pretty much sold on the idea of attending one of the schools on her list, the status and name issue keeps creeping in not only by her peers, but teachers and family members.  First, I am dealing with my husband’s family, who are LA natives.  My husband and his family attended University of Southern California for both their undergraduate and graduate work. Consequently, Nicole is not only battling the argument that one can only get a job attending a “name school,” but also that USC offers greater opportunities. And then there is the distance issue.  My mother- in-law believes kids should only attend college within a one-hour drive away from home so they can return every weekend and you can easily go take care of your kids if they are sick.  Hence my search for out-of-state colleges, gasp, that are not considered good, has been very alien to them.

My research shows that USC is different than it was in the 1950’s and the 1980’s when the relatives attended.  My husband’s family got a lot of money to send their kids there.  So I was able to show that the SAT range has gone up more than 300 points since then, and while my husband’s scores were in the upper 25% range then, our daughter with better SAT & ACT scores and higher GPA’s than her dad, is not in the upper 25% range now.

 Pressure from Her Teachers for Big Name Schools

Her teachers and peers have commented to her about her acceptances into some of these schools as “I thought you are smart.” She is in the top 3% of her school in Irvine – her 2012 class has 14 National Merit Scholars, and in last year’s class there were large numbers of students that went to the Ivies, UCLA and UC Berkeley.  Her one teacher pushed her to apply to Duke University.  She does like the school and she applied.  She is practical and has thought about later that they only accept 2 AP courses and she will have taken 9 (she has gotten 5’s on past tests), and she wouldn’t get merit money (not in the top 25%), so this would be very expensive.  So she is now thinking that since she is majoring in the sciences and plans to go to grad school in the health field, she needs to balance undergraduate cost with educational experience and it wouldn’t be wise to get into debt over Duke.  However, here is what she is being told – you have a better chance at grad school acceptances or med school going to Duke, UCLA, or USC.

Greater Competition This Year

I guess we are also noticing that she is in a very competitive graduation class – the application stats of the students at the places she has been applying are greater than in years prior.  In the past with her resume, she may have earned a full ride at some of these places, but is getting 10-15k off per year ($40k-$60k scholarships) instead at many of the schools she targeted.  Also, the economy maybe pushing high-achieving kids to look and apply at schools offering merit money more so than in the past.  She also applied and got into University of San Diego; however in the past many kids she knows got over 20k off with lower stats and extracurriculas, and she got in and didn’t get merit offers (as of now).  She was going to use that as a local backup if she could get the costs to a UC level!  But it seems there is more money out-of-state since many of her peers will not apply out of state so more competition here!

Any Advice?

If you have input in your columns about how to handle legacy parents and grandparents, going away to school and how to handle the “name” game with schools and teachers, I would greatly appreciate it. And again, thank you – at least she said she knows she is going to school and she likes where she has gotten in so far!


What Do You Think?

Okay folks, I’d love for you to weigh in on any aspect of Karen’s note. Please respond in the box below.

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25 Responses to California Teen Getting Grief for Liking Southern Universities

  1. Queen Bee March 18, 2016 at 10:09 am #

    My advise is to NOT spend an amount of money that materially affects how you retire. You (and everyone else) should be looking for a university that provides the best value for the money – this will require some research on scholarships (not loans), the earning potential for the major chosen, and the amount of ambition that the student has. The return on investment should be the primary driving factor in choosing a college. The advise given by most guidance counselors is flat out wrong when it comes to choosing a college because they will select a $60k+ per year New England liberal arts school that gives a token scholarship to your A- student. This is most often a very poor choice. The reason is that while the college that you attend can give a head start in life, that advantage is quickly lost after your first job. After that, it is only your accomplishments that matter. Therefore the difference between northeastern and southern colleges is nil when considering return on investment. I’d hire a Clemson, Chapel Hill, Auburn, UGA, Georgia Tech and many others in an instant (and I live in the north). There are good schools in every state.

  2. Britta Wichary May 3, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    Hi! I’m a high school senior from California. I’m attending Texas Christian University in the fall. I experienced very similar negativity about southern schools. A couple people (adults!) told me they would’ve chosen one of my other options if they were me. I put together a YouTube video about my college application process and how I made my decision. I cover various topics: acceptances, rejections, dealing with (unnecessary) outside opinions, and my personal reasons for choosing TCU. There’s no quantifiable “Top School” or “Best School”. It depends on the student. Each kid is different and some people don’t quite understand that! Check out my college process video at

  3. Lynne Corapi April 22, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    My daughter also applied to southern schools in North and South Carolina. We get a lot of blank stares and questionable looks when we share where she applied. We live in CA, but my daughter was very adamant about going out of state. She did programs at Clemson, Lees Mcrae, Wake Forest, and College of Charleston. She was sure that she wanted to attend a college in one of those states. We prepped our daughter on the fact that people would be asking her questions about her choices, but that we needed to inform them about the affordability of going somewhere outside of CA and the opportunity to live for four years in another part of the country where she could learn, not just from classes, but from a diverse group of people. She was accepted to a great university in CA, but her heart is leaning towards NC. Both are within our range of affordability, so the choice will be hers to make. Thank you for the information. I spent last summer reading your book, and helping my daughter put together her list of schools. It made a difference.

  4. Sandra May 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    This post completely reflects my current experience with my son. We live in Wisconsin and he will be starting in the fall at a fantastic small LAC in the south. It is astonishing to me how much anti-southern sentiment and snobbery comes out when people hear that he will be attending college in ARKANSAS. There are of course the Deliverance jokes and comments about him “getting back to a blue state after college.” Which is pretty funny considering what is going on in Wisconsin right now politically. We have Scott Walker and a right-wing legislature and (perhaps worst of all) voted out Russ Feingold from the Senate in favor of an inexperienced Tea Party ideologue.

    Like Berkeley Bumkin, I have been disappointed that some of my liberal friends are revealing how actually intolerant they are. To me being open-minded means, well, opening one’s mind.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy May 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Hi Sandra,

      Thanks for your comments. There does seem to be a huge amount of intolerance from people living in blue and purple states when teens from there decide to attend school in the South. I think if we had more geographic diversity present in our colleges and universities, we would all be better off.

      As a practical matter, schools in the South and Midwest are among the most reasonable financially.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    • GRA August 17, 2015 at 7:40 am #

      @ Sandra: “To me being open-minded means, well, opening one’s mind.”

      That’s ironic. You also said, “We have Scott Walker and a right-wing legislature and (perhaps worst of all) voted out Russ Feingold from the Senate in favor of an inexperienced Tea Party ideologue. ”

      I’d guess, when you wrote that, you were not much of a fan of Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s right-wing legislature and Feingold’s replacement. Now, given what Walker and his ilk has done for the state of Wisconsin I would not be surprised if your son returns home to start a business and a family. You might want to thank Gov. Walker, his right-wing legislature and that inexperienced Tea Party ideologue (because the US in 2008 did not vote for a relatively inexperienced Illinois Senator for the highest office in government).

      You’re surprised at the contempt and snobbery towards the South yet your tone clearly shows your hypocritcal mindset towards those who have different political views, all while implying – and believing quite hard – that open-mindedness is on the side of liberals.

  5. Vickie March 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    We have lived in South carolina , San diego and are from
    Pacific northwest .
    My daughter currently is attending University of Alabama.
    There is no doubt the Sec school are beautiful and have alot
    Of school spirit .
    Southern hospitality is wonderful to be around, but if you are not
    From the south you will always be the yankee . people will be
    Friendly but will not let you in socially.
    SEC schools are very involved in the Greek system.
    You have to have the correct social standing and designer
    Clothes and jewelry.
    Be aware if not greek at Sec school it can be hard on students.
    My daughter has witness what happen to those from other states
    Half go back to home state and other find trouble or are alone.
    The good new like any university if you are an athelete you will have group of friend
    In your sport you are doing.
    You have to get involved in groups right away honors or newspaper.youth groups
    Many organization on campus to choose from then you can work on building a social
    Circle. But beware greeks only socialize with their brothers or sister outside
    Of class or groups . So going to a southern school can be an expirence but if your not
    A strong personalitie stay in your home state where you have friends.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy March 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks Vickie for your observations. I think what you share can be very helpful to “Yankees” considering attending college in the South.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    • MP April 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Not so fast my friend. I’m sorry if your daughter has been left at all for being a Yankee. I attended USC (South Carolina), but am not from the state. I’m from the Upper South, a Marylander to be exact. While Maryland is south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I’m a Yankee in South Carolina. To be exact, North Carolinians are Yankees to South Carolinians. The truth is that it doesn’t matter in my experience.

      At SEC schools the common factors are football and style. If a student assimilates, and dives head-first into their college experience, it will work out. At USC the students who were left out were the ones who didn’t join in the football fun. If you choose to live apart from athletics, to dress in a very non-Southern fashion, etc. then you’ll stand out. It varies by SEC school, but that’s been my experience.

      As far as being Greek, I have heard that about Bama, Ole Miss, etc. It depends on the school. USC has a smaller Greek life. I was not Greek. My friends, however, were. If I remember, it was more of a thing freshman year, but most Greeks were over the system by the time they were Seniors.

      The gist is this: SEC schools are great. Yes, people will know if you’re a Yankee or not. So long as everyone goes with the flow, it doesn’t matter to anybody. Depending on the school, Greek like may be big. Just get your school gear on and cheer on the team.

      • Berkeley Bumkin May 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

        We live in Berkeley, and my daughter choose a Southern school, and people here are blown away. Why would you go to school in TEXAS? They thinks it’s too red and backwards! WOW. My daughter gets flack all the time. Berkeley individuals are SUPPOSE to be open and expanding of their views from others. Well, this is really not the case. Fall in line with everyone else’s ultra liberal thinking and your fine. i

        • Whatever11 September 25, 2015 at 5:57 am #

          I know this is an old post, but: Just for the record, most of Texas isn’t really “southern” to southerners. Just saying…..oh, and neither is most of Florida. Being southern is a cultural thing.

  6. Kimberly O'Reilly January 15, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    As an academic administrator and parent, I would turn to what the research says on student retention. The likelihood of graduation is about more than personal drive.

    (1) Does she want to go to the school? Her commitment to the university is an important factor in retention. If she picks a school she really doesn’t like, she is less likely to stay.

    (2) Will she fit in socially? Social integration, both formal and informal, is a huge factor in retaining first time college freshman. She needs to have opportunities to get involved and take advantage of those opportunities.

    (3) Is she comfortable with the cost of her education? Students who are concerned the cost of the education is higher than the benefit upon graduation are more likely to drop out.

    (4) What type of freshman orientation does the school have. There is evidence that suggests a two day freshman orientation or longer positively impacts student retention. Orientation programs should have a social aspect to help with social integration early on. In addition the orientation should help her feel prepared for the first month of academic life.

    At the end of the day encourage your daughter to pick a school that best suits her personality, values student satisfaction, and student retention. If a school feels too big for her when she visits, that is a red flag. I’m all for stepping out of your comfort zone, but the research is clear, students who feel like an outsider are much more likely to transfer or drop out.

    Have her make a list of things she finds the most pleasure in outside of academic reputation. Take that list and see which school offers her the most items on her list.


    +play sports
    +watch sports
    +social groups like sororities
    +going to movies
    +going shopping
    +graduating without college debt
    +highest acceptance rate to medical/dental/law/vet school
    +Friday dinner with Mom and Dad
    +community service
    +faith and spirituality
    +having instructors who know her name
    +making Dad happy
    +saying she graduated from a well known school

    You get the idea 🙂

    Good luck!

  7. Barbara January 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    Impressing other people isn’t the foundation for making good life decisions. It sounds like young Nicole is already learning something a lot of adults never figure out.

  8. David January 13, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    This came to me from a friend of the family who is in his 60’s. He is an interviewer from a prestigious school on the east coast, now living on the west coast. Here goes:

    “Sorry for the delay in my response. Initially distracted by business, I then forgot your note until just receiving my first interview assignment for xxxxxxxxxxxx here in xxxxxxx. The admissions people assign each and every applicant an interviewer. xxxxxxxxx just re initiated an early decision program this year; it’s about time, but too late for my son.

    (Your son) sounds like a great young man who will do well wherever he goes and whatever he attempts, so long as he keeps in mind the lessons learned and especially with the wonderful support he’s getting from his family. I’m convinced that family involvement is the key to academic success. This country’s failings in education are primarily due to the breakdown of the institution of the family.

    I have lost all confidence in my ability to predict success in applying to xxxxxxxxxx. They have a complicated formula that mixes the concepts of a well rounded individual with a well rounded class of individuals with specific skills or traits or backgrounds. Less than half the applicants with all A’s are accepted.

    (Your son’s) best bet might be to have his swim coach contact college coach. He otherwise seems to meet my criteria for admission. I always emphasize that xxxxxxxxxx should have the objective of educating the leaders of the future, whether they be in Physics, Medicine, Engineering, the Latino community or …..

    I would emphasize to (him) that it really doesn’t matter where he goes to college. (It’s too late to use that as a goal, in any case). I believe it often makes sense to do undergraduate work where you plan to raise your family. Then branch out for graduate study with more of a world view.

    Good luck with this grueling process. The trick is not to get too caught up in it. (He)will be fine, no matter where he goes to college. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help in any way.”

    Karen, what I found refreshing, after showing my son this, was that in the end, regardless of where we go, we will end up okay. PS- That’s why I joined a fraternity. I have more friends than I imagined, and people from around the country who share a similar bond, regardless of the school attended. And it seems that once a student gets truly involved at her or his university, it ends up being the “best” anyway.

  9. Linda January 12, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    My daughter went through a similar experience. Being a straight A student in an acclaimed California high school, terrific SAT score and involved in leadership, varsity sports and community service, everyone expected her to go to highly selective college. She got in everywhere she applied, including UCSB, UCSD and UCDavis, except USC. She also got into all of the schools Karen mentions in her letter, as well as some other more prestigious private universities.

    It is an equation between finances, major, opportunity and “feel of the school”, and only Karen’s daughter can decide the answer to that equation. My daughter chose a private school in Texas and it is the perfect fit. California is the #2 state for admits in all those Texas schools Karen listed so there are plenty of kids from the coast. Both coasts in fact. She has had more opportunities already as a freshman than she would’ve ever had at USC or a UC, due to size of the freshman class if nothing else. She accepted the Honors College invitation and lives in the Honors dorm. She has a hands-on internship in her major as a freshman! She will graduate with a stellar resume full of academics AND experience — which is essential in this economy. Additionally, the smaller size of and southern hospitality felt at Texas schools creates a cohesive community full of school spirit that the highly selective California schools couldn’t possibly have due to their diversity and size — if that is important to Karen’s daughter. Yes, USC, UCLA and Berkeley have school spirit, but it is slice of the student population, not a comprehesive body like it was at those schools when we all attended them. Yes, my daughter is a USC legacy too and already has been approached to transfer but she has no desire. Funny how many California kids we met in Texas had parents who went to USC. For us, attending college at TCU is a match made in heaven.

    And, while it’s hard to explain this to kids, we adults know that high school is quickly forgotten once college is started. Karen should get on College Confidential and hook up with some moms and students at the schools her daugher is considering. She will be sold on Dallas, Fort Worth and even Waco in a hearbeat!

  10. Pat January 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    My daughter was accepted to the University of Alabama and their Honors College. With her grades and test scores, she’s been awarded a full tuition scholarship for four years PLUS $2500/year because she will be a STEM major. We’ve gotten some raised eyebrows about “Alabama?” to which I totally agree with Karen in her posting above.
    We will be visiting the school next week. I hope she gives it some serious consideration. That prestige monster is a tough one to slay.

  11. Laura January 11, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    Who is going to college, your daughter, or her teachers, relatives or other busybodies? This is HER decision to make! Good for her for expanding her horizons and looking at schools in another part of the country. Aren’t colleges looking for kids who aren’t lemmings?
    My daughter is a high-achieving senior who is also facing high expectations from her teachers and peers. (“Of course you’ll get into Stanford!” She didn’t.) It has taken me quite some time to convince her that she needs to go where she will be happy, not where everyone expects her to go. And in her case, it may just be that the honors program at the “Public Ivy” just down the road may be her best option.
    College is expensive and a tremendous time commitment. There is no way your daughter should be wasting her time or your money at a school where she will not be happy. If she ends up at a school she loves, she will thrive there, do well, and be able to get into a wonderful graduate school.
    Best of luck to all of you as you overcome this peer pressure!

  12. Paula January 11, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    People are afraid of the unknown, and this certainly applies to colleges. People also buy into (undeserved) stereotypes, such as those about Southern schools. The mother who emailed has done her homework on aid policies, and the student has visited campuses. They are making an INFORMED decision. The teachers, grandparents and friends can’t say the same.

    I did the same with my own child. He and a friend are truly gifted mathematicians, scoring well in national math competitions. The other child, a Harvard legacy, was accepted to and is now attending that esteemed Cambridge institution and is paying full price for the experience. My son was not the least bit swayed by prestige or status and was open to exploring other options. He ended up at a small private school – strong in math – that awarded him $43,000 a YEAR in merit. Both kids love where they are and will probably end up in graduate programs but mine will not have paid over $200K to get there.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy January 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      Paula — I think you hit the nail on the head — people are afraid of the unknown, which highly influences their college choices. I love the example of your own son and his friend. Frankly it’s a no brainer to attend the school that wants to slash $43,000 a year off the price. Wow.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  13. Denise January 11, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Many of the small liberal arts colleges have excellent science programs — I’ve seen quite a few who boast of medical school admission rates of more than 90%, and of course, they offer the small classes that give undergrads invaluable support and research opportunities they won’t get at USC, for example.

    As far as the well-intentioned pressure from others, I think dealing with that is part of growing up. If Nicole can articulate why she’s making these choices it will also help her feel more confident in her choice and less concerned with the approval of others. Some families may feel that she needs to consider their wishes, but after financial considerations, it’s her life. How awful if she throws away what she really wants to make someone else happy! It’s time for her to chart her own course.

    I love this quote from Oscar Wilde: Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy January 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      Excellent advise Denise! I agree with your observation about liberal arts colleges and medical school. At my daughter’s school, Juniata College, 97% of students were accepted into medical and dental schools, as well as physical and occupational therapy programs. I can’t imagine a university topping that impressive statistic.

      Love the Oscar Wilde quote!!

      Lynn O’shaughnessy

  14. Kate January 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    A little off the track but most graduate students in science fields are paid stipends and are paid for TA (Teaching Assistants) or RA (Research Assistants)positions. They usually receive tuition, health care and a small salary (probably $20K – $30K). If the daughter wants to attend graduate school in a science field she should not incur a lot of expense.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy January 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

      Good point Kate! That’s one of the perks of being a graduate student in the sciences.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  15. Conni Nardo January 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    I had the pleasure of watching my husband attend grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill. There, I learned what a great opportunity I missed by attending SDSU. The South offers a completely new perspective to a child coming from the West. (I grew up in Seattle area). Part of becoming educated is learning to live and work with people who are not like you. Southern California has it’s own feel and way of thinking that is not like other parts of the US. Going to college with people from all over the world is truly a gift and one that I hope your daughter enjoys.

    We have also had the chance to tour schools in the South as we had hoped our daughter would consider UNC. Turns out, after seeing Davidson, High Point, Elon, UNC and Guilford, she was most impressed by Elon and blown away by High Point (for it’s country club feel). Elon would definitely be a top choice for her because it offers a mid-size campus with great options for classes and excellent academics.

    She has also encountered quite a few comments of “North Carolina— Why? Which, in our opinion, is exactly WHY she should be considering it! Exposure to people, cultures, etc. different than our own can only help her grow and if she can relate that to other people she meets throughout her life than she will have accomplished much. Clearly, its only when one grows in this regard that they are able to see beyond their own backyard and be open to those new experiences.

    Good luck and good for you for considering schools outside California!

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy January 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      Gosh Conni, what a great response to Karen’s post. I love your reasoning for why students should consider the South — or any other regions outside their own area. I think most students are too darn provincial when selecting schools, but that leaves opportunities for the more open-minded and adventurous.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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