Kacie Candela

Kacie Candela Credit: Kacie Candela

At this time last year, I was about to begin my senior year at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square and was putting the finishing touches on the list of colleges I would apply to.

To call my list ambitious was an understatement. Four out of eight colleges were Ivy League schools. I used the U.S. News & World Report college rankings as a starting point, and because I was a top student at my high school, naturally I concluded that I belonged at a "top" college. I whole-heartedly believed that if I didn't attend a "top 20" school, I wasn't good enough. Without realizing it, I had attached my worth to the prestige of the college I would attend. I wish I knew then what I know now.

In the words of a former dean of admissions at Yale, "the publication of college rankings is a business enterprise that capitalizes on anxiety about college admissions." The best students feel enormous pressure to be accepted to highly ranked schools. I felt this pressure -- but my experience eventually made me see it as a dubious standard.

I chose my dream school, Georgetown University, tied in the rankings at 21st, from that list. Its location in Washington would help me pursue a career in politics, perhaps as a staffer on Capitol Hill. It was one of two major research universities with my intended major: international political economy. Fordham, in the Bronx, tied for 58th, also had the major, so I applied there as my "safety" school. In fact, Fordham's program seemed a better fit for me because I could specialize in global business rather than fluency in a second language, which was required by Georgetown. I overlooked this fact, simply because Georgetown ranked higher and was therefore a "better" school.

In December, I was accepted to both schools. The Georgetown letter made me feel as if my life was finally beginning. I conversed with fellow future Hoyas online and imagined all I would do in four years at Georgetown.

But when financial aid packages were released in March, I was shocked. I logged in at my Georgetown portal and found that, although I had applied for need-based aid, the university denied me financial aid and directed me to information about loans. I live in Franklin Square, a middle-class community. My father is a mechanic and my mother is a nurse. They came from nothing and have worked their entire lives for everything we have. How did Georgetown expect me to pay $67,000 a year?

Refusing to accept this bleak verdict, I traveled to Washington to submit my appeal in person. The appeals committee denied me. I was confused, angry and heartbroken. I could not attend my dream school -- not because I wasn't intelligent enough, but because I was neither rich enough to pay sticker price nor poor enough to get financial aid. Although I was admittedly naive, the truth is that my family's finances on paper read much differently than our reality. We live in a high-tax, high-cost-of-living area that makes it hard to pay for college.

Fortunately, Fordham offered me a full-tuition scholarship and admission into its honors program. I would have to cover room and board. This was a clear choice and I'll be headed there Aug. 27.

What I failed to see through my initial disappointment was that my aspirations, including a career on Capitol Hill, won't necessarily be hindered by not attending Georgetown. I had believed that hard work in high school would guarantee attendance at an "elite" institution, and I felt that I needed to attend such a school to succeed.

I want today's high school seniors to know that regardless of where you go to college, you are the same person with the same aspirations. The college you attend will not prove your worth -- it is merely a tool to help you achieve your dreams.

Reader Kacie Candela lives in Franklin Square. She was valedictorian of the H. Frank Carey High School Class of 2015.