Chinese parents’ love for their children has become internationally famous. Some purchase expensive homes in public school districts to secure a place in top schools, turning the school district into a “luxury item.” Others spend millions of dollars for their children to attend prestigious universities abroad, making a name for themselves in higher education circles in Europe and America.
Parents’ love for their children knows no bounds when it comes to education, and this is true not only in China but also around the world. Wealthy American families are known to spare no expense in sending their children to top universities, with the phrase “at any cost” spreading across the country from New York to Kentucky.
Is it worth spending $750,000 on a consultant to plan a path to a dream school starting in 7th grade? For Hope Choi, an American parent, the answer is “yes.” His son applied to 22 schools and ultimately received an offer from Yale University.
However, different American families may have vastly different answers to this question.
Ivy League Prices Up, Parents Excited?
As acceptance rates at Ivy League schools continue to decline, tuition fees are on the rise. The average annual tuition and fees at all eight Ivy League schools have surpassed $80,000, with some approaching the $90,000 mark.
At Yale University, the cost of tuition, room, board, and fees exceeded $50,000 in 2011, $60,000 in 2015, $70,000 in 2019, and exceeded $80,000 in the last academic year.
The rate of tuition increase has clearly outpaced Americans’ income growth. In 2022, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and Brown University have also joined the $80,000 club.
However, the jaw-dropping tuition fees have not diluted people’s enormous enthusiasm for Ivy League schools. In fact, the allure of these prestigious universities seems to be growing.
Of the over 59,000 applicants to the University of Pennsylvania, only 2,400 were admitted. Yale University’s admission rate this year was 4.35%, with the number of applicants increasing by nearly 50% since 2020, the highest in the school’s history.
This high level of selectivity actually makes parents and students more eager to strive for it. With top universities’ admission rates falling below 5%, being admitted to a top school feels like winning the lottery.
Middle and upper-class Americans are actually more interested than ever in obtaining a prestigious, but expensive, degree, and will do anything to increase their chances of admission.
“The worship of prestigious universities is like pursuing Hermès,” said Eric Sherman, a consultant at IvyWise.
“The worship of prestigious universities is like the pursuit of Hermes,” said Eric Sherman, a consultant at the college advisory company IvyWise, who is also the director of college counseling at a California high school.”For these parents, prestigious schools are an important element. Imagine them at a high-end cocktail party, perhaps discussing, ‘I drive a Maserati and my daughter is studying at the University of Pennsylvania.'”
For these families, the lower the admission rate and the higher the tuition fees of prestigious schools, the more they can become a symbol of their parents’ status, attracting more and more elite families to invest in university admissions.
Without Standardized Tests, Parents Turn to Consultants to "Buy Peace of Mind"
In addition to tuition fees, parents are also inclined to spend large sums of money on college admissions consultants, mainly due to recent changes in American university admission policies.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many universities have temporarily made standardized testing optional due to the inconvenience of testing. Over the years, many schools have made this policy permanent, making standardized testing permanently optional.
Because of this policy, more students will “try out” schools they couldn’t reach before, resulting in an increase in the number of applicants, which is also a major reason for the decline in acceptance rates at prestigious schools.
Data from FairTest shows that more than 1,800 American universities, including Harvard, New York University, and Stanford, now support optional standardized testing to evaluate students’ overall abilities.
Optional standardized testing seems to have saved students a lot of trouble, but it has made college admissions more unpredictable. Grades at least reflect a student’s real performance, but how can soft skills be evaluated?
On the one hand, for the truly outstanding students, the impact does not seem significant.
Brian Taylor, Managing Director of Ivy Coach, told Bloomberg, “These universities are using these policies to attract more students to apply, but to give an extreme example, attracting more students who get C grades to apply to Harvard won’t make the competition for admission to Harvard more intense.”
On the other hand, American elite families who are most enthusiastic about prestigious schools have been spending money on college admissions consultants since their children were young.
According to data collected by StudyQA during application season, most study abroad agencies recommend starting college planning around ninth grade for Chinese students.
In the United States, however, the “starting line” for families may be even earlier, with many children beginning a series of academic and extracurricular preparations for college as early as 12 years old.
Hope Choi and her family, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, are a typical example. According to Bloomberg, Choi’s son received offers from Yale, Columbia, and University of Chicago, and was still waiting for news from his dream school, Stanford, at the time of publication.
Like many other families on the Upper East Side of New York, Choi has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools for her child since kindergarten. Starting in ninth grade, Choi sent her son to Command Education, a US college admissions consulting firm.
This firm charges $750,000 for students who start planning in seventh grade, and $500,000 for those who start in ninth grade. According to Rim, the CEO of Command Education, many of his clients spend “over $1 million” preparing their children for college.
“No parent spends that much money just to go to any school,” Rim pointed out. Parents have very clear goals for elite colleges, and the rise in tuition fees is not limited to Ivy League and other top-tier schools. “If Rolls-Royce and Toyota are the same price, which car would you choose?” Rim asked.
Choi’s choice is the “Rolls-Royce”, and he believes that his choice is “very lucky and worthwhile”: “The reputation of the school is important, cost is not a problem, and we hope our child can go to the best college for his future.”
High Returns! Elite Schools are an "Investment" for the Elite.
Of course, these elites are not foolishly spending millions of dollars just for the name recognition of Harvard.
Their deeper consideration is to view a degree from a prestigious university as an investment, with a high probability of a solid return.
According to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, four-year private colleges offer the highest return on investment, based on the average debt and median salary 10 and 40 years after enrollment.
It is clear that the elite class who invest in Ivy League education are not just spending millions of dollars for the prestige of Harvard, but also consider it a wise investment with a high probability of return.
The performance of Ivy League schools is so outstanding that parents from elite classes attach great importance to sending their children to these schools, even to an extreme extent.
There are also significant differences within the Ivy League, with Harvard having the most “money” potential. However, overall, the Ivy League is still better than ordinary universities:
For families with sufficient capital, investing in prestigious schools is a risk-free financial game. However, for most ordinary families, even qualifying to enter the game is already a difficult task.
The Other Side of Elite Schools and Elites: Skeptical Americans Question Universities
18-year-old Addison Witucki has always had a dream: she wants to attend the medical school at Harvard or Brown. But the looming question is, “what about the tens of thousands of dollars in extra debt?”
With the declining admission rates of Ivy League universities, Addison did not receive offers from Harvard and Brown, but was accepted by the University of Kentucky in her hometown. Disappointed but somewhat relieved, she noted that Brown University’s tuition was close to $85,000, while in-state students at the University of Kentucky only need to pay $33,150.
“Even so, this is still a lot of money. Public universities also charge so high, it’s astonishing,” said her mother Sarah.
It is difficult to calculate the cost of tuition from the surface tuition numbers.
For those who are truly admitted to elite universities, school aid is also an important part.
Private elite schools often have billions of dollars in endowments and strong financial resources, which can help students reduce their final enrollment costs, making attending a private school sometimes more affordable than attending a public one.
On paper, Ivy League school fees have soared to over $80,000, while in-state public university tuition is only over $30,000, but in reality, there is not much difference in debt between graduates who can receive federal student loans.
According to data from the American College Committee, in 2021, the average federal debt level for bachelor’s degree recipients at four-year public universities was $21,400, while private universities was $22,600.
Preeti Singh’s daughter received offers from Ohio State University and Stanford this year. Ohio State tuition is $15,000, while Stanford is $65,000.
They chose the $65,000 tuition for Stanford’s CS program without hesitation, believing that the money will be well spent.
As a whole, regardless of choosing an Ivy League or a public university, these families still believe in the value of American higher education. However, a more common trend in American society is that an increasing number of people are beginning to undervalue the worth of a college degree.
As the metaphor in the previous paragraph goes, “If a Rolls-Royce and a Toyota are priced the same, which one would you choose?”
Wealthy American elites have no hesitation in choosing the “Rolls-Royce”, while on the contrary, many people would not even choose the “Toyota”.
According to a recent survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 56% of Americans believe that obtaining a four-year degree is no longer worth the time and investment, up from 40% a decade ago.
People between the ages of 18 and 34, as well as those with college degrees, are the groups most skeptical of the value of higher education. The Wall Street Journal reports that this indicates that higher education in America will undergo profound changes in the coming decades.
Recently, the American job market has seen the rise of “microcredentials” issued by businesses or universities to assist with employment, potentially replacing traditional college degrees, which has sparked much debate in the American higher education industry.
Amid the difficult job market and soaring tuition fees, American higher education is moving toward two extremes: on one side are elite families who spare no expense to gain admission to prestigious universities, and on the other side are ordinary people who question the significance of college and opt for direct employment. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, higher education will undergo a new transformation in its integration with the job market.