When my wife was pregnant in late 2016, a friend told me, “You need to apply to preschool within the first three months after he’s born.“
He had one kid in private elementary school and two kids in private middle school. He is also a centimillionaire.
“Absurd!” I responded.
“Hey, it’s up to you buddy. Getting into preschool in San Francisco is harder than getting into Princeton. Don’t let your lack of preparedness hurt your son’s chances for a bright future.“
Damn it. Guilt sets in.
“Well since you put it that way. I guess I’ll get on it. Want to give us a recommendation when he goes in 2019 or 2020?“
“Of course I will,” my friend replied as we resumed our tennis match.
This post is an introduction into how daunting it is for families living in big cities to get their kids into preschool. It should also give some sense as to why there’s so much anxiety among parents and children early on.
As someone who has questioned the necessity of paying for private grade school tuition, yet who also wants the best for his son, this post serves as a type of mental penance for going through this process. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to escape the grind, but somehow, I’m always getting pulled back in.
I also hope this post brings joy to families who live in lower cost areas of the country who don’t have to worry about hyper competition due to a lack of supply. Living in a big city has its perks, but helping your child get a quality education is not one of them.
It’s only until kindergarten where all families are eligible for a free public education.
The Beginning Of The Preschool Grind
When it comes to getting your child into a top preschool in a big city, it’s all about who you know, rather than your child’s abilities. After all, your little one isn’t going to cure malaria at two or three years old.
The demand is so high simply because there aren’t enough schools. I heard through a board member at one preschool that 100 kids applied for the four spots available to non-sibling children. Siblings get automatic acceptance.
Since our boy is our first child, we have to blaze our own trail, Financial Samurai style, in order for him to get in anywhere. But we enjoy the challenge, partly because we like the excitement that uncertainty brings.
Given the average acceptance rate for the top-rated preschools is around 5%, the logical conclusion is to apply to 20 in order to get into one.
We didn’t go that far, but we did apply to eight preschools in San Francisco and one preschool in Honolulu. Three of the applications are for 2019 when he’s first eligible to attend at 2.5 years old. The remaining five applications are for 2020, when most preschools allow children to enroll.
Each application fee cost us between $80 – $150, or $1,000 total.
Since all preschools cost more or less the same in tuition (~$1,200 – $2,600 a month depending on how many days a week), we figured we might as well apply to the top-rated ones.
If you’re looking to go out to dinner, surely you’d rather go to a 5-star restaurant if the price is the same as a 3-star restaurant.
If our son gets rejected by all nine, then we will home school him since we have maximum flexibility. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all actually. There are plenty of ways for kids to socialize with other kids nowadays thanks to the internet.
Why Our Chance Of Getting In Is Slim
I don’t remember the last time I felt like an idiot. Actually, maybe it was last summer when I didn’t sell my House Sale Fund portfolio when it was up 13%. Yeah, that was dumb to not take profits when it surpassed my 10% blue sky target.
But with this preschool stuff, I feel lost because I realize the odds are extremely stacked against my family and there’s really not much I can do to improve these odds. And to spend $1,000 on preschool applications alone leaves me with a funny feeling – like I’m a sucker.
Here are some of the reasons why I believe we’ve got little chance of getting our boy into a top-rated preschool. These reasons should help you appreciate what you have and question the choice of living an unconventional lifestyle.
1) We have a small network. As two stay at home parents who’ve been away from the traditional workforce for years, my wife and I don’t have a large network of parents who have kids at XYZ preschool who can vouch for us. As a result, we are at a large disadvantage simply because not enough of the community knows who we are.
One can easily imagine a colleague or a manager on the board of a preschool who provides a fellow colleague an in. Many large corporations have tie-ups with preschools as a benefit to their employees. That’s just the way the world works. We take care of people who we know and like. Being away from networking activities for seven years is likely going to hurt us.
2) We have low-level jobs. On our application, I say I’m an assistant high school tennis coach (not even the head coach) and a stay at home dad. My wife says says she’s a freelance writer and a stay at home mom. We don’t ever say we run Financial Samurai due to our desire for privacy.
I think being a stay at home parent is an extremely important job, but we can’t compete with parents who are executives at a hot startup or partners in venture capital, private equity, or investment banking. I swear all the parents who attended the open houses we went to worked in these fields.
Society does not appreciate creatives as much as they appreciate high powered money making occupations. If society did, it wouldn’t push our artists, writers, poets, and teachers out of the city.
From the school’s perspective, they want parents who can be ambassadors of the school in their large networks and also be financial backers down the road. If you work in private equity, you will naturally have lots of rich friends who will have children and donate big bucks down the road.
If you’re an assistant high school tennis coach who makes $1,200 a month like I do, your circle of friends probably isn’t going to be as desirable to the school. And yes, I spent one month’s of coaching salary on preschool application fees.
But here’s the main reason why I put down I’m a writer and assistant tennis coach, instead of an entrepreneur or ex-banker a lifetime ago. We want to support a school that appreciates creatives and educators. A school is about child development first, not about money and prestige. If a school is willing to accept us with our lower-income occupations, that’s the family we want to join.
3) We lead unconventional lifestyles with no recognition. It’s funny. I dislike fame. But you better believe that if I was famous in a good way, my son would have a huge leg up getting into schools. Do you really think any college would reject Malia Obama even if she had terrible grades and test scores? Of course not. Alas, we are nobodies.
The only thing we do is help people achieve financial freedom sooner in order to live their best lives possible. Helping people achieve financial security is nice, especially since we do so for free, but a school would rather have parents working conventional jobs at well-known companies. It’s part of the cachet, even if the employer is known to feature fake news and manipulate your private data.
The only reason I’d ever give up my privacy or lead a more conventional lifestyle is if I could help my son. And I’m not sure preschool is worth the price.
We really cherish being able to spend as much time as possible with our son as stay at home parents. But we recognize we will be viewed as misfits given less than 1% of households have two stay at home parents.
4) We do not come from a wealthy legacy family. I know many people in San Francisco who live in multi-million dollar mansions, but who have occupations that cannot afford such luxurious lifestyles. What’s going on is that multi-generational family money has allowed them to live a life of leisure.
For example, one family founded a newspaper and sold it for $660 million in the mid-1990s. Surely the $660 million has grown to over $1 billion today. By setting up multi-million dollar endowments at several schools (preschool, middle school, high school, college), their heirs get guaranteed entrance to these schools forever. Are the heirs bad people? Of course not. They’re just like everybody else, except with tremendous advantages.
We know that kids of legacy donors have a 70%+ acceptance rate at Harvard versus <6% for the overall admissions rate. We also know that many schools of similar stature conduct similar practices for the wealthy and powerful. This is the way the world works, and the rest of us have no choice but to compete with what we have.
5) We are not part of the majority. Schools without racial bias would generally reflect the overall racial makeup of the city e.g. a preschool should have a similar demographic makeup as San Francisco: 48% White, 33% Asian, 6% Black, 0.4% Pacific Islander, 0.5% Native American, 6.6% Other, and 4.7% Bi-racial or Multi-racial.
Unfortunately, based on the data we’ve read and what we’ve observed after visiting several preschools, about 75% of the student population is White versus 48% for the entire San Francisco population. A ~27% difference is statistically significant, which means something is up.
Perhaps the huge discrepancy is because of legacy and family connections, which has carried on for generations. After all, these preschools are private, and it’s natural to take care of their own.
Although I belong to a private tennis club where the racial demographic is quite skewed like at many private preschools, I’m not sure we want our son growing up in such a homogenous environment. As a kid growing up overseas attending international schools, I found it wonderful to be immersed in so many different cultures.
When I entered the real world, it was much easier to assimilate and grow.
Just Got To Keep Trying
Whatever you do, know the odds are stacked against you. You can either give up, or you can keep on going. I’ve always chosen the latter. As a parent now, I’ve got no other choice but to stay on the ball.
Of course I will always have fear of rejection. I fear the continuous rejection I’ve experienced will continue on with my son. And unless we move to Asia or Honolulu, it stings knowing that my son will one day be discriminated against and rejected like his old man was growing up.
But on the bright side, the difficulties I went through growing up helped make me who I am today. And frankly, I feel pretty darn good about my situation. It’s healthy to sometimes get told you’re not good enough so you develop a chip on your shoulder to prove your detractors wrong.
A part of me hopes we get rejected by the early start preschools we applied to for 2019 so that we can go on a great adventure and travel the world again.
How amazing would it be to relocate to Honolulu this summer and enjoy the islands until the fall of 2020 when he’s eligible for a larger number of preschools at 3.5 years old? There’s always a bright side in everything.
If you’re a parent in a big city applying to a top preschool, let me leave you with some following thoughts:
* Get on the ball and apply early since you will eventually have to apply. Make sure you meet every deadline and send follow up letters to show your continued interest. Schools want to hear about the progress of your little one. The latest you can usually apply is the fall before your kid is planning on attending.
* It’s worth building relationships with parents who have kids attending your target preschools or board members of your target preschools. Worst case, you’ll make some friends or know you don’t want to be part of their community.
* Attend all recommended “get to know you and the school” events. These include lunches, dinners, fundraisers, etc.
* Create a picture collage and tell your story. Don’t just upload one picture in the application, make a collage of pictures that show progression over time. Preschools want to have a good community of parents they can rely on to be good ambassadors and available volunteers.
* Attending an “elite preschool” might worsen your chances of getting into a good grade school program. Therefore, look to diversify. It’s not the end all be all if you don’t get into the top-rated preschool.
* So long as the preschool has a good reputation, has a good teacher:student ratio, and has involved parents, it should be good enough. Don’t underestimate the value of proximity either.
* Consider parent co-op preschools, public preschool if you qualify, or for-profit education systems like Gymboree that accept everyone.
Apologies if this post has raised the anxiety level of some parents who might not have thought about the preschool application process in such detail. I just like to write out my thoughts because I’m thorough.
At the end of the day, we’re only applying to preschool, so don’t sweat it! I just thought it’d be fun to chronicle this journey. Don’t let lack of effort close options for your child.
The most important things we can provide our children are love, time, and attention. Besides, the internet has democratized learning and opportunity.
Here’s to the excitement of the great unknown!
Readers, have any of you gone through a similarly rigorous process of applying to preschool for your children because there was too much demand and not enough schools? Do you think schools should refund the application fee, or at least part of it, if your kid is not accepted? Why don’t preschools want more racial and socioeconomic diversity? Do you think highlighting Financial Samurai would be helpful since we don’t have full-time jobs?