Perhaps Bribing For Admissions Starts In Preschool

March 12, 2019 is a day I'll never forget. Not only did the college admissions bribing scandal break that morning, we found out our boy got waitlisted by two preschools. Waitlisted is really just a euphemism for rejected.

The first preschool was a Mandarin immersion preschool I'll call PooPoo about 20-25 minutes away. We had to go for an initial one hour tour, then a 30 minute parent interview with the admissions director who was hacking up a lung that day, and then a final play date interview along with 11 other kids and parents.

It was an arduous process that we found unappealing, especially given the commute. Plus, during our application process, the school canceled its 4-day a week part-time program in favor of only 5 full days a week. We found all of this to be too much for a 2.5 year old.

Perhaps Admissions Bribing Starts As Early As Preschool

The school seemed like it was being run more like a business first, and a school second. They had a massive $1 million fund raising goal banner in the entrance. And the decision to go 5 days a week in order to charge their full $31,240 a year in tuition felt off.

We'd also heard from parents of former students that the school really pressures families to donate large sums of money. Instead of a “donate what you can” approach, one parent told us the school's attitude with suggested donations is “you'll find a way to make it work.”

When a school is super money hungry, it makes you doubt if they're really putting the kids' interests first. It wouldn't surprise me if a school with a business-first attitude welcomes admissions bribing with open arms either.

Given these issues, we were not disappointed when PooPoo waitlisted our boy. We had already decided he wouldn't attend. Spending $31,240 a year on tuition for a 2.5 year old felt extremely unnecessary. I speak Mandarin and we could use the money to live in Taiwan for a summer instead.

Another Admissions Rejection

The second school we applied to I'll call PeePee; it's about a 15-18 minute drive away. We liked the school because it had a two day a week program that runs from 9:30am – 12:30pm for $8,500 a year. We thought this was a more appropriate transition for a young toddler first experiencing a school setting.

The only problem with the school is that it's not very racially or socioeconomically diverse. Further, 11 of the 12 available spots for this upcoming preschool year for 2-3-year-olds were already preassigned for siblings. This ensured further homogeneity.

The Executive Director personally reached out over e-mail and told me that 80 people applied for the one open non-sibling position, which meant that they only had a 1.25% acceptance rate.

Given we had no connections to the school, don't look like the majority of parents, don't have any status, didn’t donate any money, and learned the application numbers, we weren't surprised about the rejection, just a little disappointed.

Admissions Bribing Might Start As Early As Preschool

I wasn't told the application statistics by PooPoo because they didn't personally reach out like PeePee. They basically sent a blast waitlist/rejection e-mail. But, I've got to imagine the application statistics are similarly dire.

1.25% would be the lowest college admissions rate by far in the country. If parents were willing to risk admissions bribing and spend $250,000 – $400,000 on average to get their kids into colleges like USC with a 17% acceptance rate, it makes me wonder how many parents bribe their way into the most hoity toity of preschools.

The parents who send their kids to the two schools we got rejected from have very similar racial and economic profiles as the 33 parents who've so far been caught by the FBI. I spoke to many of them during our interview process and learned their backgrounds: bankers, techies, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, executives, etc. Preschool could very well be where this entire bribery culture starts.

Admissions Bribing With Large Donations

But then I started to think things through. Unlike the college admissions bribing scandal, there aren't any tests to manipulate or rowing coaches to illegally bribe.

Instead, you just basically contact the admissions director first. Then you tell them you are willing to donate a large sum of money to the school for expansion or educational purposes. Next you gush about how you want to be a part of the community. You must reach out because preschool is ground zero. That, or the school knows who you are and recruits your family.

With a 1.25% acceptance rate at PooPoo, you'd think I wouldn't know anyone who sent their kids there. But in reality, I know several parents whose kids went there and they are all extremely wealthy. Donating $100,000 – $200,000 for their kid to play with wooden blocks would mean nothing to them.

I didn't bother to ask those parents for a recommendation because I don’t know them well enough, nor did I care enough. Further, I hate asking anybody for any favors, so I don’t.

Legal admissions bribery in the form of quid-pro-quo donations has always been around. And it looks like it'll always be around.

Elite Schools Continue To Stay Elite

Also, I realized that because wealthy people can more easily afford to have multiple kids in expensive cities like SF, NYC, LA, Boston, and Washington D.C., the elite institutions starting from preschool through college will continue to be geared towards the wealthiest people in America who mostly look the same.

For those who don't know, younger siblings basically get preferential admission at private schools. This applies to preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school. Wherever their brothers or sisters attend, younger siblings are basically automatically in too so long as they aren't a screw up and meet a minimum academic standard. The preferential treatment decreases with each schooling level, but it's there, even in college.

Legacy admissions is the biggest affirmative action policy of them all.

But I understand the sibling preferential admissions policy because you want to maintain continuity in the family. Schools build relationships with families and thus it would be extremely awkward to reject a sibling. But such rejections do happen.

However, due to the nature of homophily, people of a certain class and race tend to hang out and support each other. We know that all parents want the best for their kids, so I don't blame these schools for accepting the same types of children year after year.

Don't Worry About Us

Although we got rejected by two schools, we got accepted by one I'll call WheeWhee! A 33% hit rate ain't too shabby.

The school we got accepted to came highly recommended from my wife's ex-coworker and one of my tennis students at the high school I currently coach at. It was the first school we visited and applied to a year and a half ago.

What's great about the school is that it's diverse, not rigid, super friendly, and is only a five minute drive away. The short commute really is a blessing.

Having to drive to the other two schools made me feel like I was driving to work. With WheeWhee, it feels like I'm just going down the hill to my neighborhood grocery story for a bagel.

The tuition at WheeWhee is not cheap at $1,800 a month for five full days a week. But we have the option of going half days each day or three days a week for $1,400 a month. Further, we can go month-to-month if we decide to go on an extended vacation in the future.

The admissions director told us they get on average 200 – 260 applications a year for 12 spots. Only three of the spots are reserved for siblings. An acceptance rate of 3.5% – 4.5% is still quite low.

Our lucky break for getting in was when we started to get to know one of the teachers randomly at the California Academy of Sciences where we take our son three times a week. We started bumping into him at least every week for at least a year. As a result, he felt comfortable recommending us to the admissions director.

Decisions, Decisions

We've now got a decision to make.

Do we put down a deposit for the spot? Or do we give it up so we can remain free to relocate? We aren't entirely sold on the necessity of putting our son in preschool before three years old since we are both full-time parents. We also might end up in Honolulu and send him to preschool there if the summer works out well.

We'll probably put down the deposit and ask for a refund if we change our mind. They won't have trouble filling the spot anyway with over 200 applicants a year. Besides, the school year starts in August, so we'd have at least two months in Hawaii before having to come back.

The preschool application process requires you to be on the ball. Given the amount of demand, any missed deadline will eliminate your chances of getting in.

You've got to interview well, write a comprehensive application, and consistently show your interest by attending events and following up. Even if you do everything right, the chance of admission is still low in many big cities.

But don't worry too much. Every kid will get in somewhere if they apply to enough places. Some spots open up randomly throughout the year as well. It might not be the ideal school, but so long as the children are loved and kept safe, that's all that really matters.

It's just preschool after all!

Update: In 2020, we ended up sending our son to WheeWhee! and he loved it. We loved it too. The community, field trips, holiday activities, recreational actives, art projects, and amount of outdoor play was wonderful. Alas, the pandemic cut his time at the preschool short and we switched to homeschooling. Perhaps we'll re-enroll for 2021/2022, but we're still waiting things out.


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Related: Navigating The Preschool Admissions Process

Readers, do you think there's a lot of legal bribing at the “prestigious” preschools in your city? Why do people care so much about where their child goes to preschool so long as they are safe and learning? What do you think about admissions bribing in schools? Is there any more educational research you would like me to do and write about?

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74 thoughts on “Perhaps Bribing For Admissions Starts In Preschool”

  1. I’ve read your and other people’s articles with great interest questioning the value of private schools and their associated expenses. I can relate as a product of public education. On a related matter, I also question the value of investing so much in kids’ activities.

    I’m a few years ahead of you in child rearing. It starts with the “right” daycare/preschool and after that it’s a slippery slope to private school. We tried the public schools for two years but opted for (a cheaper) private after that. It’s marginally better for an extra $13K x 2 per year.
    By high school, it will be $20K per kid on the cheap end.

    We have friends who were also staunchly anti-private but now enrolling their kids in a private middle school for $32K per year. The public schools are poorly rated, no one wants to move and we can afford the private education (despite being ideologically opposed).

    As much as we disdain spending this amount of money on our kids (costlier than any college education that we received), we’ve all fallen into this trap. When one achieves a certain level of wealth and otherwise quite frugal (no fancy cars, houses, meals), its difficult not to invest in our kids even if the returns are questionable.

    I predict that, like us, you will continue to struggle with this question for many more years.

    1. I agree.

      I’d love to send my son To private school in Honolulu where it’s only $24,000 a year in versus here in San Francisco or you have to spend about $35,000 a year for middle school and $45,000 a year for high school. Even though $24,000 a year is a lot of money, it feels like a bargain. Plus, we get to live in Hawaii. Not bad.

  2. Thanks for the fun post. The child care situation in bay area is pretty amazing isn’t it. Was very stressful finding a place for our 2.5 year old as well. If you ever need a play date in the peninsula, let me know! :) . Probably this is too far away for you, but if you are on the peninsula, Curiodyssey is a great little place for a 2.5 year old. Part zoo, part exploratorium, its just right size for a 2-5 year old vs the larger museums.

  3. Gee – I thought that gettting into private schools in Sydney was tough. We put our sons name down at two school when he was 6 weeks old to secure places for high school. We got rejected from one on the basis we were too late (12 years in advance!) despite a long family history with the institution. Private education is the biggest rort.

  4. Am I the only one wondering why there aren’t a lot more preschools given the demand and prices?

    Sam, I’d love to see you do the business case on one of these 31k / year / child places. My goodness. What kind of staff / child ratio’s are we talking about?

    1. There are alot of regulations for running a daycare. Square footage per child, teacher child ratios, added fire safety. Those are big deterrents. I’ve built four of them. Two where in high income neighborhoods and did well. One was right near the highway with easy on and off ramps; that one did well. The last was 15min or some from the highway, poorer more rural neighborhood and that one went under.

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