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Columbia University's Butler Library at night, New York City, October 13, 2008. (Andrew Chen via Wikipedia). Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

A quarter-century ago this weekend, I made the decision to attend the University of Pittsburgh over Columbia University. Given that I lived in Mount Vernon, New York, this was a decidedly weird decision. So much so that I didn’t tell my mother of my plans for nearly two weeks, and waited until April to tell my classmates. But there’s a well marbled story here, of bad Ivy League practices, not to mention my need to get away from family and classmates alike.

I applied to eight schools in all, including Yale, Columbia and Pitt. If it weren’t for Pitt’s brochure of pizza and students having a good time, I wouldn’t have applied there to begin with. The only rejection I received was from Yale, in early February ’87. Oh well!

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, December 20, 2010. (http://www.photohome.com). In public domain.

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 to attract low-income students and students of color from across the country.

I called Columbia’s 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 their West Harlem, er, Morningside Heights school.

“But you have my Mom’s financial paperwork,” I said.

“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,” the man on the other end of the phone said.

I was floored by the smug arrogance coming out of the phone. “My dad hasn’t paid child support in eight years,” I said, ready for an argument.

“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 with conviction, and hung up the phone.

I was torn between having some idiot private investigator digging through my father 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 go 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.

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

Low Memorial Library, Columbia University, New York City, August 25, 2006. (Wikipedia). Permission granted via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

trying to convince me to go upstate to Hobart and William Smith, to see about going to Columbia for their private investigator. This after a year of her telling me that applying to West Point would “make me a man” because “women love men in uniform” and applying to HBCUs made sense because she’d given $25 to the United Negro College Fund.

My classmates spent the next couple of months asking me where Pittsburgh was and why I wanted to go there. 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.

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 the University of Pennsylvania or Georgetown. I certainly would’ve been better off in terms of immediate career options and income. 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. At least for my rather fragile psyche and near nonexistent social life.