25-year-old turned down Yale for a state school in 2017—now she makes ,000 a year and has ‘no regrets’

Carolina Williams went viral in 2017 for her unique Papa Johns-inspired essay that earned the teen admission into Yale University.

The first member of her family to go to college, Williams didn’t necessarily have her heart set on an Ivy League education. Before she started applying to schools, she toured over a dozen campuses checking out the vibes and seeing what she could potentially study at each institution.

“I have many different interests, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do or study at that point,” Williams, now 25, tells CNBC Make It. “I’ve always loved statistics and research, so that was a huge thing for me. I also love to write, and I love literature,” she says.

Ultimately, she chose to study at Auburn University in Alabama, the only other college she applied to. She loved both Yale and Auburn’s campuses and could see herself as a member of either student body. But Auburn’s analytics program, along with its much closer proximity to her home and family in Tennessee, won Williams over.

She graduated in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus in analytics and marketing. And now, four years later, she has no regrets. 

Here’s why she skipped the Ivy League and how it’s worked out for her post-grad.

‘Any college I went to was so immensely impressive’

Yale has a lot going for it. As a member of the Ivy League, Yale’s reputation for being intentionally selective and churning out high-earners and industry leaders precedes it. 

Yale’s acceptance rate of just under 7% around the time Williams applied was far smaller than Auburn’s 84% rate. And Yale graduates earn a median salary of $89,700 early in their careers, according to Payscale, compared with $67,500 for Auburn grads.

Yale’s reputation was not lost on Williams. She knows she would have gotten a great education and likely had exciting opportunities to get involved with campus organizations, faculty research and the university’s vast alumni network, but the name wasn’t enough to sell her.

“Of course at Yale, you have the prestige, the name…for me, that just wasn’t as huge of a factor,” she says. “Being the first person in my family to go to college — any college I went to was so immensely impressive.”

Cost played a factor in Williams’ decision, but after scholarships and aid she would have paid around the same price for both schools, she says. But to attend Yale, she would have had to factor in bigger travel expenses. 

Williams also felt Auburn’s course offerings were better suited for the jobs she wanted to pursue. Plus, Auburn was closer to home, had seemingly endless opportunities to try new things and socialize with a student body three times the size of Yale’s and did, in fact, have a Papa Johns on campus. 

‘It couldn’t have been my path’

There’s no telling what her life would look like now if she had gone to Yale, but Williams had a wonderful time at Auburn and still believes she made the best choice for her. 

“I definitely had friends that ended up going to Princeton, Columbia, those sort of schools,” Williams says. “It seems like it’s been a good path for them, but it couldn’t have been my path.”

These days, Williams works at Nissan’s North American headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee, as an innovation and user experience planner in its Future Lab. She earns just over $90,000 a year and has been with the company since starting as an intern in May 2019. Before ending up in her current role, Williams held several positions at Nissan.

Notably, Williams’s salary is more than the median for both Auburn and Yale grads at a similar stage in their careers, per Payscale data. 

“A lot of the opportunities I had at Auburn looked great on my resume, not that I wouldn’t have gotten those at Yale,” Williams says. “Everyone has been impressed by my GPA and impressed by what I was able to achieve there and and thought my degrees were super useful and helpful in the roles I’ve been applying to.”

Ultimately, “no regrets on my end.”

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