“The ‘madness’ of Chinese parents is internationally renowned: first there was the drive to purchase homes in top public school districts for their children, driving up property prices and turning education into a ‘luxury’; then there was the spending of fortunes to get their children admitted into prestigious overseas universities, gaining renown in Western higher education circles with their substantial investments.
As the saying goes, ‘Parents’ love for their children prompts them to plan far ahead.’ This is no different for parents around the world. Generous spending on education is not exclusive to Chinese parents.
Among middle and high-income American families, there is a saying quietly spreading from New York to Kentucky, sweeping across the nation — ‘at any cost.’
Is it worth it to spend $750,000 (approximately 5.19 million RMB) to hire a consultant to plan a path from 7th grade for the dream of a top-tier university?
Hope Choi says it is ‘worth it.’ Choi is one such American parent whose son applied to 22 schools and was eventually accepted by Yale University.
Is it worth it? You may hear completely different answers from different American families.
As the acceptance rates of Ivy League schools continue to drop, their tuition fees are continually rising.
The average annual tuition and miscellaneous fees of the eight Ivy League schools have all surpassed $80,000, pushing towards the threshold of $90,000.
Yale University’s tuition, miscellaneous, and room and board fees surpassed $50,000 in 2011, $60,000 in 2015, and $70,000 in 2019. Last academic year, this figure officially exceeded $80,000.
This tuition increase rate is clearly faster than the income growth rate of Americans. The University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and Brown University all joined the $80,000 club in 2022.
But the staggering high tuition fees have not diluted people’s enormous enthusiasm for Ivy League schools. The attraction of prestigious universities is arguably stronger than ever.
Of the more than 59,000 applicants to the University of Pennsylvania, only 2,400 were admitted; Yale University’s acceptance rate this year was 4.35%, with the number of applicants increasing nearly 50% since 2020, setting a record for the school.
This high level of exclusivity makes parents and students even more eager to strive for admission — with top-tier universities having acceptance rates below 5%, being admitted feels like winning the lottery.
Middle-class and elite Americans want a prestigious yet expensive degree more than ever before and are willing to pay any price to increase the chances of acceptance.
‘Once the quality of a product reaches a certain point, any price above this point is brand premium.’ Sherman, also the college counseling director at a high school in California, said, ‘For these parents, a prestigious university is an important factor. Imagine them at high-end parties. They might want to talk about ‘I drive a Maserati, and my daughter is studying at the University of Pennsylvania.”
For these families, the lower the acceptance rate and the higher the tuition of prestigious schools, the more they can become symbols of the parents’ status, attracting elite families to invest more and more in college admissions.”
In addition to tuition, parents tend to invest significant sums in college consultants. This trend is largely due to recent changes in U.S. university admission policies.
In the wake of the pandemic, many universities have temporarily made standardized tests optional due to testing inconveniences. Over the years, numerous schools have made this policy permanent, keeping standardized tests as an optional requirement.
This policy has encouraged more students to reach for prestigious institutions previously considered out of their league, increasing the number of applicants and contributing to lower acceptance rates at these elite schools.
Data from FairTest shows that over 1800 U.S. universities, including Harvard University, New York University, and Stanford University, now support test-optional policies, placing more emphasis on other aspects of a student’s abilities.
While the test-optional approach may seem to lessen the burden on students, it makes college admissions even more unpredictable. While academic performance is tangible, how should soft skills be evaluated?
On one hand, for truly outstanding students, the impact seems minimal.
Brian Taylor, Executive Partner at college consulting firm Ivy Coach, told Bloomberg,
On the other hand, American elite families most keen on prestigious universities begin to invest heavily in college consultants from an early age, regardless of cost.
In terms of school selection factors, “affordable cost” accounts for only 8%. Source: Princeton Review.
According to data from Study All Know collected during the application season, most study abroad agencies recommend starting planning around the ninth grade.
The “starting line” for American families is often even earlier, with many children starting to plan their academic and life activities for university applications from the age of 12.
Hope Choi, mentioned at the beginning of the article, is a typical example. According to Bloomberg, Choi’s son received offers from Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. At the time of Bloomberg’s report, he was still waiting for news from his dream school, Stanford.
Like many other families in the Upper East Side of New York, Choi has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schooling for her child since kindergarten.
Starting from ninth grade, Choi sent her son to study at Command Education, a college consulting agency in the U.S.
This consulting firm charges $750,000 for students who start planning in the seventh grade, and $500,000 for students who start planning in the ninth grade.
Command Education’s CEO, Rim, states that many of his clients have spent “over a million dollars” preparing their children for college.
Choi’s choice is the “Rolls-Royce”, and he believes his choice is “very fortunate and worthwhile”: “The prestige of the school is important, price is not an issue, we hope our child can go to the best university for his future.”
Of course, these elites are not simply “rich fools”, spending millions just for the reputation of Harvard.
Their deeper consideration is to see a degree from a prestigious university as an investment that is likely to yield a steady return.
According to data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, based on the average debt and median wages ten years and forty years after enrollment, four-year private universities offer the highest investment returns.
A more direct comparison with ordinary universities shows that ten years after graduation
The matter of tuition fees is difficult to decipher from the surface numbers alone.
For those students who are genuinely admitted to prestigious universities, the financial aid provided by the school is a crucial factor.
Private elite institutions often possess multi-billion-dollar endowment funds and substantial financial resources that can help reduce the final cost of attendance. Therefore, at times, attending a private school can be more economical than a public one.
On the surface, the cost of tuition and fees at Ivy League schools has surged to over $80,000, while in-state tuition at public universities is just over $30,000. However, the debt gap between graduates who can obtain federal student loans is not significant.
According to data from the College Board, in 2021, the average federal debt level for bachelor’s degree recipients at four-year public universities was $21,400, compared to $22,600 for private universities.
Preeti Singh’s daughter received offers from both Ohio State University and Stanford this year. Ohio State’s tuition was $15,000, while Stanford’s was $65,000.
Without hesitation, they chose the $65,000 tuition at Stanford for a Computer Science degree, believing the cost would be well worth it.
Ultimately, whether choosing elite or average institutions, these families still trust in the value of American universities. However, a more common trend in American society is that an increasing number of people are starting to devalue the worth of a college degree. As the earlier metaphor goes,
“If a Rolls-Royce and a Toyota were the same price, which would you choose?”
The affluent American elite unquestionably chose the “Rolls-Royce,” while many have decided they don’t even want 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, compared to just 40% a decade ago.
Those between the ages of 18 and 34, as well as those with university degrees, are the most skeptical about the value of higher education. The Wall Street Journal suggests that this indicates a profound shift in American higher education in the coming decades.
The recent rise of “micro-certificates” issued by companies or universities to aid employment, potentially replacing conventional university degrees, has sparked intense debate in American higher education circles.
Amid challenging job markets and soaring tuition fees, American higher education is moving towards two extremes: elite families willing to pay any price for elite schools on one side, and ordinary people questioning the value of university education and opting for direct employment on the other. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, higher education will undergo a significant transformation in response to the evolving job market.