The Pre-College Racket
February 7, 2005

From SAT prep to Graduate school, America's higher educational system has become a gigantic racket. A recent USA Today feature explores the rising pre-college financial costs that are preventing many young people from getting their feet in the door. Besides being unprepared educationally, students are often shocked at the expenses associated with simply taking the SAT. USA Today reports:

When Karin Iuzzolino applied to college, she skimped to hold down costs. She applied to four schools rather than the eight that interested her. She did not visit several colleges because transportation costs were prohibitive. She chose not to take an Advanced Placement exam because it cost $82.

The Boothbay, Maine, resident couldn't afford an SAT preparation course and settled for an inexpensive CD-ROM. The only thing she did not skimp on was standardized tests; she took the SAT four times and the ACT once.

Looking back, Iuzzolino, a 21-year-old sophomore at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, says applying to college was more expensive than she had ever imagined.

"I didn't expect a lot of the costs that came at me, especially the $50 and $60 application fees," she says.

While students from families of modest means know that it costs a lot to attend college, the expense involved in applying often comes as a surprise. And the cost will increase in March when the price of the SAT Reasoning Test (formerly the SAT I) rises from $29.50 to $41.50 because a writing component is being added.

The article doesn't even go into depth about the costs that follow the SAT. Additionally, students have to pay to have their required SAT score sent to every school to which they're applying.

Last year, Harvard University had a total of 19,750 freshmen applications. At $60 a pop, Harvard is raking in $1,185,000 a year in application fees alone. Not too shabby.

When I was a senior in high school, I used to joke about how I needed financial aid to apply for financial aid. The article continues to point out the setbacks to being middle class and jumping through the financial aid hoops:

Some students seeking scholarships also have to lay out money to send schools financial information. While most colleges accept the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, several hundred colleges ask students to fill out the College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile, which they feel provides a more accurate picture of a family's finances. The College Board, which runs the College Scholarship Service as well as administering the SAT and AP exams, charges a $5 registration fee and $18 for each school to which a copy of the financial profile is sent.
There are so many more factors involved in getting into the best school beyond just being a good student. With SAT prep teachers commanding $800 a class, it's no wonder certain people score better. I probably have more negative theories surrounding the SAT because I realized it had little to do with how smart you were. I went to a private school that taught us how to think in terms of scoring high on our SAT.

College admissions have become a rat race mostly because of improper perceptions that attending a certain school guarantees success. Now we have pyschotic mothers enrolling their preschoolers in college prep classes, hoping one day for an admittance into Stanford. While I certainly think students should be educated on the different loopholes to getting accepted to college, it's all beginning to get a bit ridiculous.

Past Observations on Higher Education:
The Great Educational Hope
Great Educational Hope Part II
Generation Broke
Graduating Slaves

Posted by Ambra at February 7, 2005 3:42 PM in Education
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I went to a private school that taught us how to think in terms of scoring high on our SAT.

The private school I attended showed us how to take the test. In fact, we had practice SAT tests.

"Last year, Harvard University had a total of 19,750 freshmen applications. At $60 a pop, Harvard is raking in $1,185,000 a year in application fees alone. Not too shabby."

That might be enough to fund the admissions department including their overhead. Maybe. Think of the number of people it takes to go through 20k applications in a timely manner and then figure how much that number of people would make. Even if its just 20 people, you're still gonna be spending over a mil with overhead and benefits.

Well, considering they probably don't even READ half, I'm not so sure.

I grew up in a poor family (single mom raising 4 kids on less than $20K/yr + some welfare)...
yet managed to get into the Ivy League (hint: the one that for some inexplicable reason chose not to accept our wonderful host)... that same school is now practically free for families with incomes under $45K (no loans, no parental contribution, but still have to work full-time during summers and part-time 10 hr/wk during school year).

You can get fee waivers for the SAT and college applications... also, programs such as Upward Bound often pay for application fees for their students...

As for test prep... all you need is Princeton Review Book (I used their books for SAT and GRE to great success... they are ABSOLUTELY the BEST in the business)... also, Upward Bound offers free SAT review classes...

Oh, and did I mention Upward Bound? Check it out and recommend it to high school kids or their parents... they work with students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds of all races...

From everything that I have heard, most of the prep classes really do not have much affect on the SATs... people who take them do not test comparatively better than people who do not. That is not saying that some people are not better at taking that format of test, but from everything I have heard, they prep courses are just a waste of money (thankfully, I never took one).
As for how many applications they read, I am sure Harvard and other schools have a system that allows them to make the process move quicker... they probably remove anyone below a certain SAT score or below a certain GPA to start with, making their job easier, only coming back to them if there are still slots left.

Fascinating historical collision. At a time when competition is fiercer than ever to enter our elite institutions of higher learning- aka power-drinking parties, Ward Churchillish academic kooks, athletic depts. run like corporations- it is easier than ever to avoid the whole process on the way to career success. It is technically feasible for a child to obtain his/her academic training- pre-K to MBA or beyond- entirely on-line. In a future which President Bush defines as the 'ownership society,' perhaps the best advice one can give a graduate of these traditional institutions is Do It Yourself- your own website, business, law firm, private practice. Just like the practice about a dozen fashion cycles ago of 'designer jeans,' the Major Universities- those with either the loudest faculty kooks, or the most intense student bodies at athletic events, or both- see Duke U. with its Cameron Crazies- will continue to maintain brand appeal. Otherwise, it's every person for itself (can't become gender-exclusive- a sin of the highest PC order.....)

I remain unconvinced of the necessity of collegiate education. In the last two weeks I have had 4 different high ranking decision makers in various fields tell me exactly the same thing in slightly different words. They all agreed that education and letters behind a name pale in comparison to experience and teachability.

I read an AP article a few weeks back that detailed why the SAT costs are so high. Apparently, specialists are hired to go through each essay on the writing tests to ensure adequate and fair appropriation of scores. Because many of these specialists are paid by the hour, the costs of the SATs are staggering.

M. La Roi: You may have had "4 different high-ranking decision-makers" tell you they question the value of a B.A., but as a 22-year-old, your problem is getting your resume through HR and middle management. Those folks are looking for a quick way to turn 150 resumes into a dozen people to interview, and the lack of a 4-year degree is, along with spelling errors, one of the most common filters.

Gerard E.- I think you're right. We're heading towards a strategic inflection point, driven by the large number of mid-level people getting Master's degrees online. Snobs like me may still prefer bricks-and-mortar universities but in doing so we'll miss out on some good people.

-cwk.

"the snob"...

The advice that was another common thread through these men and women as well as my own boss and quite a few other managers with whom I've spoken on the subject is that creativity is likely to get their attention first. A well presented resume package along with polite but immediate follow-up is a great way to get the attention one seeks. I've heard several testimonies which stated that this got an applicant an opportunity that wouldn't have come otherwise.

I myself have two separate instances of being hired for positions at which I had no degree or experience but presented myself as possessing what they wanted. In this age of "Googling" and internet degrees, it's becoming less impressive to say "I've got a BA, PHd," etc; than to say "look what I've done or can do".

I don't discourage a college education, though with today's campus climate it's a tempting thought, but at the same time I remain unconvinced of it's necessity.


A great looking resume, a headshot, (no matter the field) along with some related experience can go a long way. The degree still HELPS, but I've seen (and read about and heard) too many increasingly common stories to the contrary to dismiss them.

Long story short, have some skills and present a nice package and your odds are as good or better of receiving the attention as a degree with an average presentation. Now the follow up can kill you if you don't have what it takes, but getting that first interview is key.

Bump that number to 6. This morning I interviewed the owners/operators of a local music institute that they opened 23 years ago. They said (when I asked how they hire music teachers) that "degrees don't mean anything". The applicants that catch their attention are interviewed and tested and if they make it through, they're hired.

I'm not adding this for the sake of argument, rather to encourage any job seekers out there who don't (or don't yet) have a degree.

Costs too much? Don't go to Harvard then (but then again, as someone else pointed out, there are ways even if you are poor). It's a free country, you know.

I went to an Ivy League university as well (not Harvard; another one where the Hollywood folks love to send their kids, bah!).

Here is my observation: you do not go to an elite university for superior education per se. You can get just as good an education from, say, the University of Iowa (costs a heck of a lot less too).

What you get, however, is the chance to associate with greater-than-average number of high-IQ, high-achieving peers, some with VIP parents. Same thing with elite high schools, for that matter (my high school best friend went on to Harvard and CalTech Ph.D. in physics and now makes a living smashing atoms together... while I smash my head on a desk at Discovery Institute, hashing out foreign policy positions).

Is that kind of "elite" educational environment valuable to you? Then by all means, try to get yourself (or your child) into Harvard or another elite institution. If not, don't go and don't whine about it either.

My problem, as an immigrant to this country, is that too many Americans have a sense of entitlement and whine endlessly.

My father lived through a major war as an orphan child refugee in what was then a Fourth World country (now one of the 20 richest countries in the world). He roamed the streets for scraps of food on the ground and had frostbitten hands. He never once whined. He worked hard, lived on the streets, put himself through school on a merit scholarship and eventually became a diplomat.

His son got to go to an Ivy League school and hobnob with kids of blue-bloods. From garbage can to that... all in only two generations. My father never complained of not having had the opportunity to attend a top shelf university in the West. He just worked hard to make it possible for his son.

And my child? I don't know whether he (I don't have one yet) will go to an Ivy League university. But my wife and I will work hard to make it possible for him to have even more opportunities than I had (and certainly unimaginably more than his grandfather ever did).

Frome one generation to the next... I hope it goes on... without complaints of "costs."

Aw man, you missed your chance!
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