There’s probably little you won’t do to help your kids succeed—short of running the bases for them at a Little League game, or writing their admissions essays.
Who doesn’t want to make sure the odds are in their favor when it comes to college and their subsequent careers?
But when you’re juggling one too many financial priorities, you can’t always afford Saturday math camps and private tutors—unless you go into debt helping junior keep up with the Joneses’ kids.
From preschool admissions coaches (you heard right!) to foreign language immersion classes, we’ve rounded up five popular ways parents pay big bucks to give their kids an educational advantage to see if these perks are really worth the money.
The Skinny on Preschool Admissions Coaches
Yes, some preschools have become so competitive that you need an outsider to help your toddler make the grade.
In some cases, parents are dishing out $200 to $400 an hour to have preschool admissions coaches help them demystify a vetting process that can rival those of Ivy League schools—think 13-page applications, personal essays, reference letters and screening tests.
So Is It Worth It? Only if you’re a big-city dweller who can’t make heads or tails of your Montessoris from your Waldorfs.
That’s because major metro areas—like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York—are struggling with the perfect educational storm of shrinking resources for public preschool programs, and private schools that work hard to restrict class size.
The result? Long wait lists—or outright rejections—for getting into your top pick preschool.
“[The need for a preschool admissions coach] shouldn’t exist. But once you are in a place like Manhattan, for a lot of people, it can be very helpful,” says Emily Shapiro, who was a nursery school director for 15 years before becoming an independent admissions consultant. “I don’t think everyone needs to hire one, but if you’re spending between $20,000 and $30,000 for preschool, it makes sense to be sure your children are in the right place.”
How to Get the Best Bang for Your Educational Buck: Not all parents need the full slate of a coach’s services—in many cases an initial consultation is enough to point you in the right direction.
To make the most of that session, Shapiro suggests bringing a comprehensive list of burning questions, such as what an “interview” with a one-year-old looks like, and whether you really need to start the process before your child is even born. (Short answer: no.)
“Some people hear all this buzz on the street, and suddenly there’s a lot of anxiety,” Shapiro says. “But all they need is a reality check and information to know what’s true and not true. For those people, one meeting may be enough.”
The Skinny on Foreign Language Immersion Programs
We’ve come a long way from waiting to intro kids to bilingualism with Spanish 101 in high school.
Over the past 20 years, language immersion programs—classes in which kids spend all or part of their time learning a second language—have skyrocketed.
In 1991 the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language-education nonprofit, recorded 119 public and private immersion programs in the U.S. By 2011 that number hit 448.
Today there are even immersion kiddie classes on the docket at day cares and nursery schools. So even if your child just started saying “Mommy,” they can also learn how to say Maman, Mutti or Mãe before enrolling in elementary school.
So Is It Worth It? Yes. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual children have an advantage when it comes to problem solving, abstract thinking, switching between tasks and sustained attention—not to mention the benefit of being exposed to different cultures and traditions.
“The research now is even more compelling about the importance of starting language early,” says Nancy Rhodes, a senior foreign language consultant at the Center for Applied Linguistics. “If children are exposed to the sound of other languages at a very young age, it will be easier for them to speak them later. Plus, we’re trying to get young children in the U.S. to compete globally.”
How to Get the Best Bang for Your Educational Buck: You don’t have to spring for full-on immersive preschools—which can run upwards of $20,000 annually—to get the second language benefits.
Depending on your location, lower key offerings can run less than $200 a month, like weekly parents-and-tots language classes at a franchise such as Language Stars.
The Skinny on After-school Tutoring
If you were the child of a Tiger Mom, chances are you may have spent your afternoons doing algebra in a tutoring center instead of running around the playground.
Many parents swear by programs like Kumon, in which children supplement their school learning with after-school sessions that drill them in math and reading—with classes costing between $100–$120 for a single subject, not including enrollment fees.
But how much good does all this added academic time really do?
So Is It Worth It? It depends on your child’s learning style, and whether your kid is struggling to grasp certain subjects. “If your kid needs more drilling, then that kind of support is a benefit,” says Stacy Zanine, a gifted-support educator for the Souderton Area School District in Pennsylvania.
But keep in mind that a program focused on teaching through repetition may not do much to improve critical thinking skills.
“The kids I know who have participated in Kumon haven’t done anything negative—but it hasn’t helped them with problem solving,” explains Zanine. “And I think colleges and companies are focused on problem-solving skills, not just calculating.”
How to Get the Best Bang for Your Educational Buck: To give kids more well-rounded academic enrichment, Zanine recommends focusing on a variety of educational experiences—such as exposing them to museums, food tours and other cultural events, in addition to flash cards and multiplication tables.
“Give them experiences. If they love reading, for example, have them join a book club,” Zanine says. “You’ll get so much more [out of] that.”
The Skinny on SAT/ACT Prep
That perfect 2,400 SAT score is hard to come by. Fact: According to the College Board, only .02% of students will likely achieve it.
But that doesn’t stop parents from paying a pretty penny to get as close to that plum score as possible, shelling out anywhere from $700 to $3,500 for courses at test-prep outlets like the Princeton Review, Kaplan and TestMasters.
So Is It Worth It? Yes—but it depends on your expectations, and your kid’s efforts.
No conclusive research has shown that test prep will guarantee a score boost in the hundreds of points—as is often claimed in ads—but a 20- to 30-point bump is realistic.
And that may be worth the money if it pushes your child into the threshold of qualifying for their school of choice, or enables your kid to receive more merit-based financial aid.
Another big factor? Your child’s motivation.
“When we put together a test-prep plan [for our clients], that may mean referring SAT tutors, but the students have to buy in,” says Betsy Morgan, owner of educational consulting firm College Matters, LLC. “If they are not motivated to do it, then you are absolutely wasting your money.”
The Khan Academy, in particular, has partnered with the College Board to create prep work for the redesigned SAT that goes live in March 2016.
The Skinny on College Admissions Consultants
Yes, the price of tuition keeps climbing, but colleges are also more competitive than ever. In 2015, schools like Stanford and Harvard saw their acceptance rates dip to new lows, with both hovering around the 5% mark.
And that leaves many worried parents scrambling to ensure their kids get into the right college by paying more than $4,000 to hire college admissions consultants.
For some parents, that’s an investment worth making, considering how overwhelmed most public school guidance counselors are: The average counselor manages an average of 471 students!
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So Is It Worth It? Maybe—if you need help finding the right academic, social and financial match.
For instance, a college admissions consultant can not only help you find a school that fits your child’s personality, and walk you through financial aid options, but she may also be able to figure out which schools your child falls into the top 25% academically.
And that could bump up her chances of receiving merit-based scholarships, says Louise Evans, a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) and associate at financial services firm The Vermont Agency.
Plus, finding a school where your student is happy from the get-go can save you money in the long run.
“The national transfer rate is over 50%, and very few of my kids have transferred,” Morgan says. “I like to think it’s because they’ve ended up at the right schools in the first place. Transferring can be very expensive.”
How to Get the Best Bang for Your Educational Buck: “A lot of consultants just do the admissions side and others just do the financial side, so I would find someone who knows how to do both,” suggests Evans. “That’s how you’ll get the best value.”
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