In this increasingly money-driven world, finances have an impact on our most menial—and most vital—decisions. This holds true whether it be choosing the store-brand cereal that just isn’t the same, turning off the heat on a tolerably cold day, or deciding where to spend the next four years of your life that will prepare you for the following 70. For many students, the latter decision is found on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie, New York.

Poughkeepsie is home to both Marist and Vassar College. Both schools have a significant commuter presence on campus. Self-funding local students are given the choice of going away to school to live the “college life,” and plunging themselves into student loan debt, or saving some money by commuting to a local college or university. Max Hudson chose the latter.

Hudson’s situation is not that of a typical commuter. While he endures the usual troubles of a commuter (he makes a 20 minute drive from his home in Lagrangeville to Marist every day), he also gets a full-ride scholarship to Marist.

Although he graduated as a member of National Honor Society in the top ten percent of his class last May, his arrangement is not solely academic. Hudson’s parent is a full-time employee at Marist College, and this allows him to enjoy the perk of a full-ride scholarship upon admittance.

In an interview, Hudson spoke gratefully of his arrangement. “I’m lucky,” he said. “Had I not gone to Marist, the majority of [the financial burden] would be on my shoulders.”

While acknowledging his luck, Hudson pointed out the discrepancies between the experience of a commuter as opposed to that of a residential student.

“There are definitely things I feel I miss out on,” he said. “Being on campus, I think, would prove more free time to do things, where now my time is kind of limited, which makes things a little more difficult. I feel like the majority of the clubs—the times they meet are so late at night—that it’s kind of like a put-off. Like, I don’t want to be here ‘til 12 o’clock every night.”

Speaking on the clubs he’s missing out on because of the inconvenient timing for a commuter, Hudson says they “could definitely be résumé-builders,” helping to pave way for a future career.

On an average day, Hudson leaves his house at 7:30am to make the commute to Marist for an 8 o’clock class. After his classes, he grabs some lunch, followed by either work or going to the gym. He then goes back to campus for a 9 o’clock band rehearsal, from which he doesn’t get home until around 11:30pm—just in time to go to sleep and do it all again the following day.

Hudson’s commuter status is a rarity on the Marist campus. According to statistics obtained from Marist’s Department Institutional Research, only about 3% of the Fall 2015 student body were traditional commuters – traditional applying to students who have commuted from their home since their first year at Marist. For many, the home from which they commute isn’t just a twenty-minute drive from suburban Poughkeepsie. According to the Department of Institutional Research, the commuters who have the longest trips call New York City and Long Island their home.

Despite receiving a full-ride, Hudson foresees the looming cost of graduate school on the horizon. On top of his demanding schedule, he currently works 10-12 hours per week at a hardware store to save money. Topping it off with another job at a local music store during the summer, Hudson’s total work week consists of about 50 hours.

Nate Powers, a resident of Poughkeepsie and freshman at Vassar College, has a comparable situation to Hudson, yet lives a vastly different life. Powers graduated a member of National Honor Society with a GPA at the top tier of his class as Hudson did, and he too receives a full-ride scholarship thanks to a full-time Vassar-employee parent. The difference between the two students? Nate lives a mile away from Vassar, yet still rooms there.

Like Hudson’s arrangement with Marist, Vassar finances Powers’ tuition and fees, but room and board—$8,000 per year, after financial aid—are not covered. “That, I was able to supplement through scholarships and student loans, like other people,” he said.

While more costly, Nate took the unpopular path among local students by residing on campus, and finds no regret in his choice.

“My parents and I decided at the very start of the college process that, if I were to go to Vassar, I would live on campus so as not to deprive me of the ‘true college experience,’ and I agree that that was a good decision,” he said.

Unlike Hudson, Powers values the opportunity that he has for hands-on, extracurricular learning as a residential student.

“I can say without a doubt that I would be unable to participate in organizations and clubs with as much frequency as I currently do if I commuted,” he said. “I would be deprived of the lessons one learns in a residential college, like having a roommate or personal time management.”

However, regardless of his content with Vassar, Powers admits that his dream school wouldn’t be an option if his was parent not been a full-time employee. “I’d like to think that I’d have found Vassar and applied there when I was looking,” Hudson said, “but I probably wouldn’t have gotten enough money to make it there myself.”

Combined, the two students considered schools everywhere from Dutchess Community College to Columbia University, but their financial concerns proved to be deciding factors when they chose not to apply elsewhere. Speaking on what most students have to pay in order to obtain a higher education, Hudson said, “I don’t think any school is worth that much money.”

Powers shared this sentiment, saying, “Why pay more for what I would expect to get from somewhere I could go for, essentially, free?”

Unfortunately, the “free” that Nate refers to still amounts to $32,000 over the course of four years.

The true “free” cost that Max has requires the ceding of the independent, hands-on college life that is yearned for by young students across the nation.

The two cases, no matter the financial or educational advantage, are indicative of the problem so many students face when choosing their place of higher education. Students are forced into an ultimatum of sorts, where they must choose the lesser of two evils. They can get their coveted “college experience,” but walk away with tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dollars in debt, or save some money and buy that store-brand cereal that just isn’t the same. The kicker? There’s no right answer.

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