by Mitch Anthony

In some communities, getting into certain kindergarten programs can be as tough as getting into an Ivy League school. Since 1997, the number of kids taking the ERB (an aptitude test used by many kindergartens and private schools) has grown by about 40 percent. This translates into the pressure starting early for many 5- and 6-year olds. There’s no time for outdoor play or creative expression when you can be working on becoming fluent in a second language. In fact, there’s an entire industry dedicated to helping families get their kids into private elementary schools. Actual tuition often runs into many tens of thousands of dollars—per year. For a kindergarten.

And that’s just the beginning. Once your child has made it to the top of his kindergarten class, he’ll have the opportunity to attend some prestigious summer camps where he’ll get the opportunity to hang out with other really smart kids—forget about spending time with the neighborhood kids. As with other well-orchestrated and often over-scheduled activities, more and more parents are sending their children to summer camps to get a leg up in the race toward the Ivy prize. What happened to the experience of just being a kid?

Instead of spending summer camp roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories, some kids spend their days prepping for college admissions: searching for the right college, completing an application, preparing a personal essay, prepping for SAT/ACT. Sounds like a great way to spend your summer vacation, don’t you think?

Long queues of ambitious, wannabe Ivy League parents believe that if there is a magic formula, it involves spending. They shell out big bucks for college placement services, SAT/ACT tutors and summer enrichment programs—and ramp up giving to their alma mater, which is always a good move toward influencing the admissions process. Are these prudent investments or a waste of money? It all depends on your goals and what you believe a pedigree will deliver.

Top Tier Admissions has created what is arguably the most successful organization devoted exclusively to charging clients many thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the “right” colleges, as well as attend their college admissions boot camps. Parents are using these services because they believe their children need or deserve a running start in this world to succeed, regardless of the price tag. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, more than a quarter of high-achieving students have worked with a consultant.

In BusinessWeek, Top Tier co-founder Michele Hernandez was quoted as saying, “You don’t want to pay $180,000 for some piddling school when, by spending a little extra, your kid could get into Yale.” Nothing feels quite as bad as paying $180K for a diploma from Wanna B.U. Keep in mind the article appeared ten years ago—meaning tuition has no doubt increased substantially since then.

Amy Chua’s 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, propelled a global debate about parenting, the importance of education, and the role of family. As a result of her book, Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, became one of the most talked-about mothers in the world. The Wall Street Journal published her polarizing essay “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” where she discussed her approach to directing her children’s education.

Her kids were never allowed to watch TV, have playdates or ever get anything less than an A in school. She chose the instruments they played (piano and violin) and insisted they practice for hours. If they showed any resistance, she pounced—in one episode calling her daughter “garbage” and in another “pathetic.” The price for not going along in Chua’s system is the withholding of parental approval.

In his 2007 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Daniel Golden tells about a meeting at a New York City private school of high school seniors with their college counselor. The counselor, trying to help them prepare for their college interviews, asked the students how they would respond if they were asked about what special contribution they would bring to the college of their choice. “I’m very outgoing,” said one. “I’m passionate about community service,” said another. The discussion took an unexpected twist when one young man said, “A library.” “What do you mean, a library?” asked the counselor, a little taken aback. “Well, my dad said he’d give a library to whatever school I want to go to.”

Can the rest of us compete in a world of pay for placement? More importantly, do we want to? Will it make that much of a difference in the life of your child who will someday be an adult in the workplace? In the workplace, there will be little interest or weight resting upon the source of your child’s diploma but plenty of scrutiny upon her personal competence, bearing and daily work ethic. In other words, eventually your children will have to make it on their own.

It is not unthinkable to have amassed a bill nearing a quarter of a million dollars—or more—when the tally is done, if you include kinder-prep, summer camps, test tutors, college prep, and admissions manipulation. This bill doesn’t even include the actual tuition. These are only the monetary costs. What about the psychological costs upon our kids? Why do people do it? I suspect that for some it is more about themselves than their kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the dangers of the “overscheduled child” and the lack of unscheduled downtime: “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.” In other words, kids need to be allowed to be kids if they’re ever going to become contributing members of society as adults.

At some point, parents need to step back and ask, “How much do I need to invest in my child’s future, and how much pressure should I be exerting?” Are there matters of character and principles we could be teaching our children that will cost less and take them further? Matters like responsibility, independence, critical thinking, creativity, personal confidence, communication skills, honesty and a desire to make a difference in the world? One way we can help our kids succeed is by letting them make their own decisions—and their own mistakes. Give me a 22-year-old that possesses these traits and experiences, along with a diploma from Vanilla State College, and I guarantee that child will be happy—and successful. I have nothing against an Ivy League education (and know many good people who’ve benefited from one) but we all know it’s the person that gets the job done—not the diploma.

© 2017 Mitch Anthony

Mitch Anthony is the founder and president of Advisor Insights Inc.and the Financial Life Planning Institute, the leading provider of financial life planning tools and programs for the financial services industry.

For almost two decades, Mitch and his team have provided training and development for both individual advisors and major organizations throughout the world. Mitch personally consults with many of the largest and most-recognizable names in the financial services industry on both financial life planning and relationship development.

Mitch is a consistently top-rated presenter who has spoken to groups ranging from 10 to more than 10,000. He has been named one of the financial services industry’s top “Movers & Shakers” for his pioneering work. Through the Institute, he has partnered with Texas Tech University, the University of Georgia, and Utah Valley University to develop financial life planning programs for their undergraduate programs.

Mitch is a sought-after expert for the media, and a regular columnist for Financial Advisor magazine. His columns have appeared on CBS MarketWatch and in the Journal of Financial Planning. His original comic strip “Stanley Brambles, CFG (Certified Financial Guru)”appears monthly in the print edition of Research magazine. Mitch is also host of the daily radio feature, The Daily Dose, heard on over 100 radio stations nationwide.

Mitch is also the author of many groundbreaking books for advisors and consumers, including perennial bestseller StorySelling for Financial Advisors, cited by “Financial Advisor” magazine as the number one “must-read” book for financial professionals. Mitch’s other books include The New Retirementality (now in its 4th edition), From the Boiler Room to the Living RoomYour Clients for LifeYour Client’s Story, and The Financial Lit-Kit: The Cash in the HatThe Bean is Not Green, and Where Did the Money Go?. For information on these books and more resources, click here. Contact Mitch at [email protected].