For Anna Dybro, the decision about where to go to college is very calculated — and, really, pretty straight forward.

“I always wanted to make a value purchase,” the 22-year-old says.

For a long time, as she was growing up in a small Illinois town outside of the Quad Cities, Anna thought she would go to the University of Iowa. But when she started looking more closely at the cost, that didn’t seem rational.

She looked at some in-state options. She toured Urbana-Champaign. Too dirty. She checked out Northern Illinois, but was turned off by their lack of transparency about a campus shooting years ago. Closer to home there are private colleges like Augustana. But why would you pay $40,000 to go there? she asks. 

“I’m not a person who’s going to go into debt, I’ll tell you that,” she says.

“I’m not a person who’s going to go into debt, I’ll tell you that.”

Her dad has worked for decades as a staff engineer at John Deere. Her parents socked money away for their kids’ college educations. Anna’s not going to waste it.

So she has ended up here, at the Quad Cities campus of Western Illinois University, where tuition is just $9,000. First, she went to Blawk Hawk College, a community college nearby. 

Staying in the area has a number of practical benefits.

She earns money working across the river, in Davenport, as a server at Granite City Food & Brewery. She saves money by living at home, in Sherrard, Ill. 

How long does that make her commute to class? “With or without the train?” she asks. Having to wait for the train can add as much as 30 minutes to a 20-minute drive — especially, she adds with a sigh, if it stops on the tracks and sits there for a bit. Still, living 16 miles away is plenty convenient.

Anna says she’s a good student, was in the top 10 of her high-school class. She could have chosen another path, but she doesn’t have second thoughts about not going to Iowa or another university with more of a residential college atmosphere. She’s not into the party scene anyway.

About 700 students take classes at the Quad Cities campus of Western Illinois. They’d all fit into just one of the large auditoriums at the University of Iowa. But Anna is happy with the quality of her classes. One of her professors, she says, is probably the smartest person you’ll ever meet. She’s majoring in management, minoring in marketing. She’s confident she’s not going to have to worry about getting a job in the future.

“I’m getting a great value here,” she says, “so it doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.” 

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.