The college admissions scandal exposed the amount of money some parents will spend to guarantee their children a spot at a top college.
But across the country, families with more modest means regularly shell out to give their kids every advantage possible. In some cases, like SAT prep courses or independent college counseling, that spending is directly related to ensuring a student’s college application is as competitive as possible.
In others, such as buying a home in a good public school district or paying for violin lessons, the spending theoretically provides benefits beyond a college application.
Assuming students attend private school, participate in at least four years of each of these categories of extracurricular activities, and parents hire SAT tutors and independent consultants to help students prepare their college applications, families could wind up spending more than $200,000 preparing a student to apply to college before they ever get there. In many areas of the country the cost would likely get even higher.
Below is a snapshot of how much families might could spend on preparing their children to apply to college.
The ability to spend on extra help studying for a standardized test, making a college list or playing on a travel basketball team, is one of many ways wealth confers an advantage in the college process. Though income levels play an obvious role in whether parents can afford these extras, a family’s financial status can also affect whether parents are willing and able to gamble on these activities as a long-term investment.
In a poll published Monday, by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, nearly 30% of parents said the cost for their middle- and high-school children to participate in school activities — school-sponsored sports teams, plays or other extracurricular activities — was higher than they expected.
And three times as many low-income parents as wealthier parents said the benefits of these activities were not worth the cost. What’s more, the poll found that 55% of parents said these activities helped boost their child’s college application. That’s far fewer than the more than 70% who said that the activities helped their kids learn what they like to do or make friends.
‘Part of what can play into the un-level playing field is different parent understanding and attitudes about the extent to which these extracurricular school activities do anything for their child’
While it’s good that parents are recognizing the intrinsic benefits of students’ participating in extracurricular activities, Sarah Clark, an associate research scientist in University of Michigan Medicine’s Pediatrics Department, and the author of the study, said she worries that if parents don’t believe there are other, tangible benefits to their kids’ participating in these activities — like getting into college — they may be deterred.
That’s likely to be particularly true if a family has limited funds and needs to make a trade-off between another expense and paying for extracurricular activities or if a student may need to give up time earning money for their family to act in a play or be on the swim team, she said.
“Part of what can play into the un-level playing field is different parent understanding and attitudes about the extent to which these extracurricular school activities do anything for their child,” Clark said. “I do think it contributes to some kids not necessarily having the same encouragement and opportunity to engage in some of these things.”
Clark’s research indicates that schools do offer some extracurricular programs for free, usually intramural sports or arts-related activities and, in some cases, they offer fee waivers or scholarships for families who may struggle to afford the fee for a varsity sports team or other program, though those are rarely advertised, she said.
On the other hand, families who can afford to spend money on these types of activities, and belong to a social circle where such spending is typical, can feel pressure to pay for a child’s extra music lesson beyond the school orchestra or the equipment and fees necessary to play on a travel soccer team, in addition to the school’s varsity squad.
In a 2016 survey of parents with investable assets of at least $25,000, TD Ameritrade
found that 23% of families cut back on retirement saving and 11% cut back on saving for college to afford the cost of their kids’ participating in youth sports.
The reasons why parents are so willing to spend money on sports and other extracurricular activities are varied, said Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade. There may be an interest in bragging on Facebook
about a child’s home run or, more practically, they believe their investment will pay off.
About 67% of parents surveyed, all of whom were relatively higher-income, said they hoped the money they spent on youth sports would result in a college scholarship, a far higher percentage than is actually the case.
“It’s no secret that today parenting is obviously very different than it was a generation or two ago,” Luber said. “Parents want to help their children pursue their dreams no matter what the toll is on their finances.”
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