In the race to college, parents spend thousands to give their children every advantage

December 9, 2017 — by Jeffrey Xu

Adding up all the costs, some parents are spending $50,000 or more for their children’s academics in just their latter two years of high school.

As the 3:45 bell rang on a recent school day, sophomore Jewoo Im rushed home to catch his online medical school counseling meeting at 4, meet with his English tutor at 5:30 and attend his U.S. Biology Olympiad preparation class later that night.

To an outsider,  Im’s commitments beyond the usual school day might look highly unusual, but this is the reality for many students today at a wealthy suburban school like Saratoga High: Life is a constant time-crunch, filled with both academic work and extracurricular activities as students strive to bolster their academic profiles.

For students like Im, academic achievement often involves online courses, private tutors and college counselors, resulting in their parents spending thousands of extra dollars each year on education.

According to CNBC, college counseling in the U.S. costs about $4,000 on average from the beginning of junior year until the end of the college applications process in senior year. In contrast, the price of counseling for many SHS students costs a lot more, averaging about $15,000 to $20,000 for those two years, according to a recent survey on Facebook.

For private tutoring, the cost of a high-end tutor averages $80 an hour, according to For students with multiple tutors, this amounts to about $16,000 in two years, assuming an hour a week each for two tutors. SAT and other subject prep classes such as The Ivy Advisor cost around $2,000 per course, and most research-driven summer programs will range from $3,000 to $5,000.

Adding up all the costs, some parents are spending $50,000 or more for their children’s academics in just their latter two years of high school.

Guidance counselor Alinna Satake said the reason for all of this spending is rooted in parents’ most basic instincts.

“Parents love their children fiercely and want to be as proactive as possible for their children's future successes,” Satake said. “Whether or not it is the right call, I believe parents feel like putting money into supporting academic success is a practical way to help their children gain an edge in the college race.”

Satake, a 1997 graduate of Saratoga High, also said that nowadays, it is much more competitive to get into college than it was 20 years ago. Although students still took as many APs as they could and took SAT prep classes, kids weren’t applying to nearly as many colleges as today.

“When I applied to colleges, kids applied to maybe five or six colleges, and 10 was considered a lot,” Satake said. “Now I seldom see kids applying to less than 15.”

Satake attributes this trend to what she calls the “terrible cycle” in the college applications process.

Students worry about their college acceptance chances and apply to more schools. In turn, this causes colleges to be able to boast that they’ve received record number of applications and are able to artificially drive down their admission rate. The record number of applicants makes them seem more attractive, making even more students worry and apply to them in the years ahead.

Satake believes this trend leads to students losing the ability to apply pragmatically, since applying to so many colleges “in no way increases your chances of getting into any of those schools.”

Additionally, such aggressive applying also comes with many application fees, which many parents are more than willing to cover before even looking at the tuition costs, which averaged $50,000 in the U.S. for in-state private colleges in the 2016-2017 school year, according to the College Board.

Despite all of these costs, senior Prashant Malyala argues that academic spending provides a significant advantage for students.

“People who have the financial support to make expenditures on outside classes and college counselors tend to have a major advantage,” Malyala said. “This advantage usually comes in the form of more inside knowledge on the college app process and better access to educational resources, resulting in a flashier resume.”

Senior Ania Kranz argues that spending money in this way is not necessary for academic achievement.

“I know that tutoring and outside classes do help a lot of people with that 'academic edge' by getting extra practice in certain areas,” Kranz said. “However, I think it boils down to personal discipline — just because access to tutoring is available doesn't mean people will work proactively to achieve.”

Kranz also thinks that what sets apart an excellent student from the average student is their dedication toward academics.

“People spend a lot to be the best here, but money can only get you so far,” Kranz said. “I think what really makes a student stand out isn't the amount of money they spend on their academics but rather their devotion to set out and do what they want to do.”

Not all parents are willing to spend thousands on their children’s extracurricular education.

Sophomore Ronak Pai’s parents are one such example. As a self-taught student who recently qualified for the USA Computing Olympiad Gold level and is a prominent member of the school’s speech and debate and robotics teams, Pai said his parents have spent little money on his extracurriculars, a decision that he says hasn’t hurt him.

“Money doesn’t buy you happiness, and it sure doesn’t buy you a good work ethic either,” Pai said. “I just work hard, and that amounts to much more than any private tutor or paid class.”

Pai’s father, Raj Pai, sees some spending on education as necessary and other spending as something that actually disadvantages kids in the long run.

“I don’t like to spend huge amounts of money on my kids’ education because I believe they should learn how to work hard without relying on their parents’ money,” Raj said. “However, I am willing to cover the basic costs of college and school materials.”

Senior Michelle Vu echoed this sentiment, pointing to free resources that “often do just as much, if not more than the more expensive alternatives.”

Vu has used resources such as CASSY, the school’s mental health center, and the school’s guidance counselors and believes that they have greatly benefited her.

“I personally think that the amount of money spent doesn’t always guarantee any sort of achievement,” Vu said. “For me, CASSY and guidance counselors have helped me just as much with counseling as a college counselor or a hired psychologist might. I think people should try the cheaper option first instead of relying on something that seems good just because of its cost.”

Satake said that outside private college counseling is not only expensive, but can be unregulated as well.

“There is no governing board or quality control,” Satake said. “Any yahoo can start a practice. Families don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on outside support when they have trained credentialed counselors they can access for free!”

Satake is also concerned with some of the ethics of outside college counseling. Although this does not necessarily apply to all services, she has seen consulting services that “package kids in slick ways that are not entirely truthful.”

In the end, Satake thinks such services are unnecessary.

“Kids are great,” Satake said. “They don’t need to be shined up. You are who you are and you should be proud of that and present that to colleges. Many wonderful colleges will be thrilled to have you.”



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