I Gave Up the Major I Wanted So I Could Go to College For Free

changing my major

It’s College Month, and one of the questions Mike asked us last Friday was whether we chose our college majors “based on salary and job prospects.”

I chose my college major so I could go to college for free (and get a free computer).

A little backstory: As you might remember from one of Ester and my weekly Billfold Chats, I did not grow up with a college fund. I have a memory of my parents telling me “your college fund is your brain,” but that might be apocryphal. Still, it was true. I was a smart kid, and between the number of Midwestern schools offering full-ride scholarships—and the network of schools that offered Tuition Remission to children of college faculty—I was statistically likely to go to college for free, and that meant I would put in every effort required to go to college for free.

That Tuition Remission thing is real, by the way. Here’s an explanation from the National Association of Independent Schools:

From the institutional viewpoint tuition remission has only one purpose: to attract and hold the strongest possible full-time teachers and administrators who are also parents. While some of our greatest educators are and have been childless, and while schools need the talent and commitment of childless adults, they require also a critical mass of professional staff with the experience of parenthood. Especially in a time of family disintegration, it is important to have strong, committed parents among those who work with our children.

The difference between tuition remission and financial aid is that the former is automatic, no questions asked. Professional staff members with children are spared the indignity of baring their financial souls to insider committees and school heads who will decide if they qualify. More important, their standard of living is left intact, and they are not penalized for having children, without whom there would be no schools. Assuming salary equity for all teachers and administrators, tuition remission may be seen not as a benefit, but as a means of maintaining equal spendable income for staff with and without children.

That last sentence. Wow.

Anyway, I remember focusing my college applications exclusively on schools that offered full-ride scholarships. I was not only a bright kid, but I also tested well (34 ACT), and at one point I received a letter from a small Midwestern college offering me a full-ride scholarship even though I had not applied to the school.

The school that offered the best full-ride scholarship—the one that included not only tuition, but also room and board and a brand-new desktop computer—was Miami University. My dad drove me to Ohio to visit the campus, and I was completely dazzled. There was this moment, right at the beginning, when I was walking up to one of the residence halls to meet some of my potential classmates, and the door swung open for me. (Later I’d figure out that for these kinds of events they’d stash an undergrad behind the door, peeking out the window, to press the automatic door button every time a prospective student approached.)

I also wanted to study theater. I was as serious about theater as anything else in my life; at that point my resume included “professional” acting credits (one summer, I got paid $50 per night to sing and dance at a local dinner theater) as well as having both stage managed and assistant musical directed community theater productions.

But when I sent over my audition tape and resume, Miami University sent back a letter saying I had not been accepted into the Department of Theatre.

I was crushed. How could everything I had accomplished so far not be enough? (I mean, I got paid $50 a night to wear a top hat and leotard and kick my leg up in the air! Had I not made that clear?)

But I went to Miami anyway, because they were still offering me tuition, room and board, and a computer. That was by far the best offer. I had grown up with computers in the house, and I knew how important it would be to start college with a computer of my very own. (It was 2000, and most students still used computer labs—although by 2004, when I graduated, nearly everyone I knew had some cheap PC in their dorm room.)

I also went to Miami because it was the school furthest away from my hometown. My parents offered to buy me a car if I picked the school that was just an hour’s drive down the road (a school that had also given me a full-ride scholarship, and whose theater department didn’t come with a formal audition requirement), and I refused to change my decision.

I know, by the way, that this technically means I gave up the major I wanted so I could go to college for free plus free room and board and a free computer and the chance to live far away from my hometown. I could probably have found a way to go to another school on a full-tuition scholarship and study theater, but I wanted to see the world, starting with Oxford, Ohio and anything I could pull up on Miami’s highest-speed-I-had-ever-seen internet. (It took me about 36 hours to realize that the internet was full of erotic Pride and Prejudice fanfic, and maybe another 36 hours to read all of it.)

After I arrived on campus as an undeclared major, I ended up getting sent to this really awkward meeting with the theater department chair, because they had figured out they hadn’t accepted me and were now trying to figure out if that had been a mistake. “We don’t usually reject Harrisons,” he told me, referring to the name of the enormous scholarship package I had received.

He invited me to audition again. I politely thanked him and then never set up the audition. Maybe the rejection had been a mistake, in the “we accidentally put her name in the wrong column” sense, but at that point I was a smart kid who had been told I was good at nearly everything I tried. This time they’d said I wasn’t good at something, and then they called me in to this meeting where they said they might change their mind because they’d already given me all this money and a computer and so they wanted to give me this second chance at a theater audition too.

It felt, in a word, gross. I’m not saying I made the right decision here, but at least I knew why I was making the decision. I wanted this to be something I had earned, not something that had been given to me because smart kids get extra privileges.

So I became a music major instead (I sat down, whipped through a Mozart piano concerto, and they were all “yeah, you’re in”), and eventually added on a theater minor, since I was hanging around the department enough that I figured I might as well put it on my transcript.

Later on I went to grad school and got a theater MFA and yet another full ride, because I was still a smart kid—but I’ll save that story for later this month.

This story is part of The Billfold’s College Month.

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