If you have a baby or toddler or are planning to have a baby, this post is for you. I’ve been running an interesting, real-life, real-time experiment on how hard it is to get ahead if you have below-average money and little status.
In 2017, we ended up applying to three preschools that accepted toddlers as early as two for the 2019/2020 school year. We then applied to five more preschools between SF and Honolulu that accepted toddlers after three for 2020/2021. We didn’t know what we were doing so we decided to play it safe.
Private schools are always stressing diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, diversity and inclusion are theoretical goals made difficult to achieve because they are stymied by deep-rooted admission practices such as legacy admissions, bribery, and quid-pro-quo legal donations.
Applying To School Without Money, Status, Or Connections
To see if our diversity experiment would work, here’s what we did:
1) On the part of the application where it asked for the parent’s occupation, I wrote “writer and high school tennis coach” and my wife wrote, “stay at home parent/writer.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a writer is roughly $62,000. An assistant high school tennis coach makes roughly $1,100 a month during the three or four-month long season.
In other words, my occupation put me at roughly 30% below the median household income for San Francisco. Further, a ~$65,000 income is not enough to comfortably afford the median rent in San Francisco either, based on spending no more than 30% of your gross income.
I figured perhaps these harder to get into preschools would be happy to take parents who weren’t all techies, bankers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and doctors.
2) We knew parents and people on the boards at preschool 1 and preschool 2. Despite our connections, we didn’t name drop and just left the section where it asked who we knew, blank.
3) We tried to make our application as strong as possible in other ways. We emphasized our flexible schedules and our ability to volunteer a lot in the community. We mentioned how we would help build out their respective websites with content about the school when they asked. I also emphasized my high school coaching, since it is a target high school for many of these kids.
How Did We Do?
We got rejected by preschool 1, a preschool located about a 17-minute drive away from our home. We liked the school because of the campus and the proximity to my tennis club. The people were nice, but we simply had no in. The admissions director said there were 80 applicants for 1 non-sibling spot.
Given I only visited the campus once, didn’t have a referral letter, and so much time had passed between application and rejection, the rejection didn’t sting at all. The admissions officer reached out to explain the situation about the number of applicants, and that if we wanted to stay on the wait-list, we would be at the top. I’m sure he said this to many parents.
We also got rejected by preschool 2, a Mandarin-immersion school about a 25-minute drive away. My dad thought we were crazy to apply to a preschool so far away. But we applied anyway despite the distance and the $32,000 a year in tuition because we value language. The school is relatively new, having only been founded in 2008.
Despite the distance, cost, homogeneity of socioeconomic backgrounds, the poor surrounding location, relatively short operating history, and a seemingly greater focus on running a business than a preschool, this rejection stung. We visited the school twice; I thought I had a good interview; we even had a playdate.
Their rejection hurt because they had wasted so much of our time and didn’t reach out personally about the rejection like the admissions director at preschool 1 had done. Instead, the school sent out a blast e-mail and that was it. For the $100 application fee, at least they could have sent out something with a more personal touch and instructions for what to do next.
Because of these rejections, I decided to investigate and try to understand why we failed in order to help other parents or parents-to-be better prepare for the preschool/grade school admissions process.
Make no mistake about it, when it comes to private preschool, elementary, and middle schools, the school is interviewing both the parents and the child.
From the board member at preschool 2 and a couple of private grade-school parents, here are perhaps some reasons why we didn’t get in.
Getting In Is All About Money And Status
When I shared with the board member at preschool 2 what I had done, he was flummoxed.
The board member asked, “Why didn’t you come to me for help? I would have put in a good word. Also, given we are finishing up a multi-million dollar campus expansion, we are in heavy fundraising mode. We need families who have the financial means to pay not only the $31,240/year in tuition, but also donate $5,000 on average per year.”
I already knew preschool 2 was heavily fundraising because there was a huge banner right in the entrance that said something like, “Help us raise $1,000,000 for our school expansion!” It turned me off each time I went because it felt like I was going to a fundraiser instead of to a school.
The board member continued, “If preschool 2 is expecting a parent to pay $36,000 a year in tuition and donations after-tax, they would naturally be disinclined to admit a kid whose parents might only make $45,000 a year after-tax.”
“Even if you don’t apply for financial aid initially, based on history, there is a high probability you eventually will. Given you are not an underrepresented minority, your minority status does not really help diversify the school base.” he went on.
“Further, what happens when you decide to have another kid? There’s no way you can afford $72,000 a year in after-tax tuition alone compared to the parents who make $500,000+ a year. Schools such as ours want well-to-do parents who will provide a pipeline of continuous income for hopefully at least a decade. From a business perspective, a family with a trophy kid (4th kid) is much more attractive than a family with only one kid.”
All of what my friend said made sense. I just didn’t want to face the truth, especially due to the ongoing college bribery scandal and the Harvard discrimination lawsuit that has kept me perpetually perplexed about the private school system.
To get additional perspectives, I then talked to several other private school parents who knew my background. They also scratched their heads after learning about my experimentation.
One father who has since pulled his four kids out of a private school due to the cost and his divorce told me this interesting nugget, “Our school tried to have more diversity over the years. But the problem is there was a much higher dropout rate by kids who grew up in lower-income, underrepresented minority households. The kids who dropped out couldn’t keep up with the course load because they either didn’t have two parents, had parents who were always busy, or didn’t have the financial means to get extra tutoring.“
“When a kid drops out, it disrupts the classroom and the entire community. Friendships are broken and administrators scramble to fill the hole. The admissions office determined that it was no longer worth their time and effort to try and attract minorities and poorer families due to their elevated dropout rate. This is why you see so much homogeneity at the private grade school level.“
How To Get Your Kids Into Private School
If you want to get your kids into the best private preschools and grade schools you must make yourself look as rich and powerful as possible. The schools aren’t interviewing so much the kid, as they are the parents.
Schools need to know that you won’t flake on tuition. Just like how some people flake on their credit card debt, mortgage debt, auto loan debt, and student loan debt, some parents sometimes won’t be able to pay their tuition either. The ability and willingness to pay are huge!
By showing that you are rich with a good amount of status based on your resume and Google search, you will increase your chances of getting your child in. By having a network of friends with relationships to the school, you get to piggyback off their goodwill and increase your odds of admission as well.
You need to be seen as a golden goose who will be able to perpetually donate money during every fundraiser. You must demonstrate that you are a great referral pipeline and will get similar types of families into the community.
Please do not believe that because you are an artist or work at a non-profit helping underprivileged children for a living, you have a greater chance of getting your kid into a private school. Private schools don’t want diversity as much as they want/need money. They cannot rely on government assistance to fund their operations, therefore, it is only natural that funding plays a predominant role in admissions.
If you don’t believe me? Look at Harvard University and other private universities. Harvard University has a ~$38 billion endowment. Yet they have a massive overrepresentation of kids coming from the top 1%, refuse to scrap legacy-based admissions that favor the rich, and aggressively fundraise every year.
Recognize The Reality Of Money And Status
If you want to participate in society’s games, then you must play by their rules. Have as much money, power and status as possible to give your children a leg up.
I would say for preschool, parents make up 90% of the entrance equation. For private K – 8, parents make up 70% of the entrance equation. And for private high school, the kid finally shines and makes up 70% of the admissions equation.
If you don’t want to participate in society’s games, then you can chuckle on the sidelines, send your kids to public school, save lots of money, and just do your own thing.
I’ve decided to take a hybrid approach by exploring all the kinks in the system while also doing my own thing. As a writer, I find all the head-scratchers to be fascinating.
Besides, I want to continuously bring to light how rigged our society is in every phase of life. By knowing how rigged the system is, I hope it will encourage you to do everything possible to achieve financial independence sooner. This way, you will have more options.
Oh, and what about preschool 3? We got in. It was the first preschool we applied to and the first choice all along. The school is only five minutes away from home so it makes drop off and pick up super convenient. They have two teachers for a class of twelve, and quite often a third teacher or volunteer helps out as well. We particularly like that the kids go on outdoor adventures every day since the school is right next to Golden Gate Park. The school is also cheaper than preschool 2 and has been around much longer.
I learned the school we got into gets ~250 applicants a year for seven or eight non-sibling spots. So how did we get in? We applied early and serendipitously met one of the teachers while we were visiting the California Academy of Sciences with our son. The teacher also had a son, a couple of months older, and took care of him during the mornings while his wife worked. We ran into him and his son over 20 times over the course of a year and developed a cordial relationship.
It feels great knowing that we got in because of our parental involvement, and not because of our job titles or perceived wealth. All the teacher knew was that he saw me and my wife bring our boy every Tuesday and Sunday mornings at the museum during member hour. He correctly deduced that if we were both so involved in child-raising, that we would be equally involved with the school community.
At the end of the day, I don’t believe it really matters where your child goes to preschool, so long as it has a safe and nurturing environment that’s relatively close by. It’s easy to stress about the competitiveness of getting in somewhere, but everybody eventually gets in somewhere that’s good enough.
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Note: Part of the reason why we did this experiment was because we wanted to move to Hawaii. If we got rejected everywhere, then we would have one less reason to stay in San Francisco. We also welcome the challenge of homeschooling since we have the time.