The Wall Street Journal

The Escalating Arms Race for Top Colleges

SAT tutor: $125 a session. Campus visits: $4,000. Why it now costs a fortune to do your parental duty



[college2] Getty ImagesI’ll meet your SAT tutor and raise you a vocabulary adviser: As the college-entry game gets crazier, you know someone else is going to get there first.

It is no secret that the children of certain families (and we all know who we are) are primed to take a disproportionate share of the places at the best—or at least the most prestigious—colleges. That’s because we’re already sending our kids to the kinds of excellent schools that help prepare them for admission to such colleges.

But just in case our children don’t quite have the stats to make it into, say, Georgetown or UNC on their own steam, you can bet that we, as parents, will do everything in our power to make it happen. We are all caught up in a crazy arms race, where the order of the day (to borrow a useful term from the Cold War) is “escalation dominance.”

Getting kids into college has become the equivalent of an arms race with wealthy parents willing to do whatever it takes at any price. Kelsey Hubbard talks with suburban mother of college-bound kids and author, Jennifer Moses.

Which is why, even though every corpuscle of my being rebelled at the idea, my husband and I shelled out a small fortune over the past year for SAT and ACT tutoring for our 17-year-old twins, a son and a daughter. If we hadn’t, what if, God forbid, some other kid who went ahead and got the tutoring inched his or her SAT score up just enough to bump our own kids out of the running?

So a whole new set of people came into our lives, including a retired teacher who worked with our son every week for a mere $125 a session, requiring him to spend his free time studying lists of vocabulary words that show up nowhere in the world other than on the SAT. (When’s the last time you encountered “abscission,” “fugacious” or “defalcate”?)

But at least this tutor knew what he was doing, unlike the half-dozen tutors I lined up for our daughter at unspeakable cost, before finally alighting on someone who was able to show her the ropes in a meaningful way, also at an unspeakable cost ($693, to be exact). I refer to Josh, who helped our daughter to bump her scores up and did the same for pretty much every other kid in her class at the private school she attends, where the total tuition comes to just under $30,000 a year. Yes, America is still a meritocracy!


  • 6,405 Early action applicants to MIT, fall 2011
  • 772 Early action applicants admitted
  • 35,473 Freshman applications at U.C. Berkeley, fall 2001
  • 52,900 Freshman applications at U.C. Berkeley, fall 2011
  • 17.8% Admission rate for applicants to Yale, class of 2001
  • 7.5% Admission rate for applicants to Yale, class of 2014

With all this investment, is it any wonder that some pathetically over-programmed kids (like our twins) apply to 10 or more colleges each? Thus the ridiculous cycle wherein every kid whose parents can afford it—plus, no doubt, those who can’t afford it as well—applies to boatloads of schools, ramping up the application numbers and feeding into the application frenzy, which gets more frenzied with each passing year.

Total cost of the twins’ combined standardized testing fees: $522.

Total cost of applications, including sending various permutations of the SAT and ACT reports: $1,132.87.

Not to mention the travel.

With our twins looking at entirely different sets of colleges, my husband and I decided to divide and conquer. For college tours, he took the boy twin, and I took the girl twin. There wasn’t a state in the country that didn’t beckon. We drove and drove. And then, because my daughter wasn’t satisfied, we went on a second tour in late summer, this one involving airplanes and rental cars and still more corporate-style Power Point and video presentations, followed by more perky undergraduates spewing out facts and figures regarding credit hours and dining-plan options.

Guidance counselors warned us that some college admissions offices look askance at those applicants who haven’t bothered to see the campus in person. Because so many of the schools insist that you make a reservation for a college tour and then sign in when you arrive, they’re like Santa: They know who’s been naughty and only looked online and who’s ponied up and schlepped hundreds of miles to eat cafeteria food.

Total cost of travel, including air fare, car fare, gas, hotels, food and incidentals, for both twins accompanied by one parent each: $3,998.23.

And if all of the above isn’t stomach-churning enough, there is for-hire college counseling, which steps in when your kid, like mine, has a major freak-out, convinced that, without specialized help, he will end up having to go, God forbid, to Rutgers (where his father is on the faculty). The private college counselor told our son exactly what he’d heard from his regular guidance counselor and from us. But she also gave him an Office Depot filing system to help keep things organized, tips about how to get a campus interview even for schools that don’t do on-site interviews (ask a professor to meet with you) and why it’s important not to have a cellphone message that says things like, “Hi, butt-face, talk.” But compared to the SAT tutoring, she was a bargain, a mere $701.25 to date.

Is going to a so-called “better” college worth it? Is the system fair? The first question is the subject of seemingly endless study, which almost always concludes: It depends. The second question is easier to answer: Of course it isn’t fair. Despite diversity goals, scholarships, loans, all kinds of waivers of application fees, and various other leg-up programs, the entire application system is so unjust that it makes the House of Lords look like a New England town meeting. This is especially true now, when the tanking economy puts college more and more out of reach for just about everyone other than the financially secure.

If you are among this last category, you will know that as much as the system is tilted in favor of our own precious children, there are people out there with even more access to connections and pull and money. And when little unremarkable Junior Money Bags somehow gets into (insert name of college where his dad, granddad, and great-granddad went, which happens to have a building with the family name on it), well, that’s when we really turn purple with the vast unfairness of it all.

Let the fat envelopes pour in!

—Ms. Moses is the author of “Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou” and “Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom.”

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