Aside from the NCAA Tournament, there is another form of March madness that besets many of us — college admissions, acceptance and financial aid. Not every talented high school student goes to an Ivy League or applies for early decision or early acceptance. Heck, the majority of students who apply for any kind of college at all apply at community or two-year colleges, and many of those students wait until the last minute (July or August) before enrolling. But for the majority of students about to graduate high school with serious college aspirations, March madness represents decision time about the kind of postsecondary experience they want and need to have. The consequences of those decisions can play out over one’s entire adult life, so the decision ought to be a good one.
As for me and my classmates, the getting-ready-for-college process involved heavy doses of pain and stress. Most of both we afflicted upon ourselves. Some of the pain, though, emanated from other classmates and teachers and our own warped sense of our achievements, from six or more years in the gifted track known as Humanities. For the valedictorian and the salutatorian of my Class of ’87, a near-decade long friendship crashed on the rocks of the stress and strain of our senior year, college preparations and the issue of race that presidential hopeful Barack Obama was brave enough to speak out about this week. One was a White female, the other a Black male, and both very academically accomplished to say the least. Both not only expected to get into college, they expected full-blown scholarships to attend elite or Ivy League universities to boot. Well before March, both received their wish. The valedictorian gained admission to Johns Hopkins as a pre-med major with a scholarship of some sort, while Harvard easily accepted our salutatorian.
Other Humanities students made fairly predictable decisions. Cornell, Syracuse, NYU, UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Temple, SUNY Purchase or Binghamton, Tufts and other places on the well-beaten path of students from the greater NYC area. About twenty Black students opted for an HBCU experience, gaining admission to Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Clark-Atlanta or Spelman depending on who I talked to at the time. Some made interesting decisions. One decided on Vanderbilt for no immediately obvious reason, another chose to accept Georgia Tech’s offer because of their basketball program (it’s not as great a program as it used to be), and one of the other top five students went for the Naval Academy in Annapolis to be her own person. The one commonality was that almost to a person, all of my classmates had expected to go to college — because of family background, their family’s ability to pay and/or their grades — long before we reached our senior year. I knew from the end of seventh grade on that I’d need help, and a lot of it, to get into college and have the means to cover the costs.
I applied to eight schools in all, including Yale, Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh. The first two are obvious choices. Pitt’s brochure of pizza and students having a good time were enough to get me to apply. I received my first college letter in February, a letter from Yale in a regular business-sized envelope, a clear sign of rejection from that vaunted university. If I’d known about their policies to limit the number of disadvantaged students who qualified for scholarships back then, I might not have applied to begin with. As it was, I had no idea why they rejected me. Over the next five weeks, I received one acceptance and packet of materials after another, including Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh. All but Columbia gave me a full financial aid package of one kind or another. All offered either a partial or a full-tuition scholarship for four years except for Columbia. Pitt had offered me one of their inaugural half-tuition academic scholarships that they called the Challenge Scholarship, meant specifically to attract low-income students and students of color from across the country to the university.
Columbia was the only school that assumed that someone in my family could afford to cover a significant portion of my tuition. I called their financial aid office in mid-March to ask why they hadn’t offered me any kind of academic scholarship. They called me back to tell me that they wanted to “make sure” that I really couldn’t afford to go to Columbia. “But you have my Mom’s financial paperwork,” I said. The man on the other end of the phone then made an offer. “Well, we could send out a private investigator to track down your father and take a look at his finances. If everything checks out, either he can cover part of your tuition or we can offer you a scholarship.” I was floored by the sheer sense of arrogance coming out of the phone. “My dad hasn’t paid child support in eight years,” I said. “We want to make sure that he doesn’t have money for your tuition,” was the creditor’s response. “Thanks but no thanks. You either trust me or you don’t,” I said, and hung up the phone. I was really and truly torn between having some idiot private investigator digging through Jimme’s pitiful life and finances and saying “Go to Hell!” to Columbia. I didn’t want to see the worst case scenario occur, which was that some fool would come back to Columbia and say that Jimme could afford to pay $3,000 of my tuition per year. In the three years up to March ’87, Jimme had given me $3,500 total.
Then I thought of other pros and cons, and as I thought of them, I wrote them out. Columbia was an Ivy League school, the University of Pittsburgh wasn’t. Yet, Columbia was more expensive than Pitt by more than two dollars to one ($18,000 per year versus $7,500) and the students at Columbia would likely be similar in education, socioeconomic background and attitudes to my Humanities classmates. But the most important factor in saying “No” to Columbia besides their financial aid sleaziness was 616 and Mount Vernon. If I went to school there, where would I live and where would I study? Home? You got to be kidding! Mount Vernon Public Library? They only stayed open until nine pm, and were never open on Sundays. On campus? That would only work if I were able to get a decent paying part-time job on campus. After sorting through this, I knew that Columbia was out. Pitt was it.
The look on my mother’s face when I told her said it all. She was as shocked as I’d ever seen her. She kept trying to convince me to go upstate to Hobart and William Smith, to see about going to Columbia for their private investigator. My mother had tried all year to influence my college decision without any sense of my needs or attitudes about her or 616. First it was “Apply to West Point” because they would “make a man out of me” and “provide me good discipline,” and because “women love men in uniform.” When that didn’t phase me, she wanted me to go to Black college like Morehouse or Howard because “I gave them [the United Negro College Fund] some money.” It was $25, not enough to buy a book bag. Too many of my Black classmates planned to go to an HBCU. These were the cool folks, the Rick James and Eddie Murphy “Party All The Time” folks, going to schools with reputations for cliques, partying, and low graduation rates. I wanted a mix of people, White, Black, Hispanic, older and my age, male and female, nerdy and normal. With those suggestions, I pretty much shut my mother and everyone else out of the decision-making process.
My classmates spent the next couple of months asking me where Pittsburgh was and why I wanted to go there. I really didn’t have a great explanation. All I knew was that I needed to get away from the New York area for a while and that the University of Pittsburgh’s tuition was cheaper than almost anything I would’ve faced in New York. I knew that they had a decent Computer Science program — this was to be my first major. But I also knew that I wasn’t stuck if I wanted to change majors or study something other that computer science.
So my decision was both rational and psycho-social, a sure sign of “madness.” In the end, I obviously made the right decision for me at the time. If I had to do it again, maybe I would’ve applied to American University or University of Pennsylvania or University of North Carolina. But given the friendships that I formed, the degrees I earned and the wife that I have, I’m not sure if another good choice like the ones above would’ve been any better than going to Pitt.