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The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"

by Anne Murphy

Although I live in San Diego which arguably has the best climate in the contiguous 48 states, I am putting on sweaters and lighting fires in my fireplace. Our winter would be unrecognizable to most others, but if you live here long enough, you get cold when it is 65 degrees.

Even though we are in the depths of winter, it is time to make summer plans, no matter where you live. Families are now booking flights and looking at Airbnb’s. College-bound high school students need to be making their own plans as well. Students who might be applying to colleges that have a holistic application review process, need to evaluate their extracurricular activities and add things this summer to enhance their portfolio. I ask the young people I work with to evaluate the activities they have done or are planning to do and give themselves goals of what they could do to ensure that when they apply to colleges, they do not have any regrets about how they have spent their time. I offer them possible objectives such as acquiring more leadership experience, showing concern for the community, demonstrating dedication for a specific cause or interest, and pursing knowledge in the discipline of a prospective major. The last

of these is the most likely to lead to a “Pay to Play” option.

In my humble opinion (imho), there are both positive and negative aspects to opportunities for high school students that require a parent to write a check, “pay to play.” Examples would be pre-college experiences, doing research under the tutelage of graduate students or even professors, or paying to have an internship.

Here are some of the downsides:

1. Cost: Some of these come with a very steep price.

2. A program might sound better on paper than it really is. Like all things in life, experiences do not always match


3. Although highly selective colleges want to see research and publications and such, they are also sensitive to issues surrounding advantages that some students have over others who might be more challenged financially.

However, there are also upsides:

1. Living on a college campus for a week or more gives students a taste of what going to college will be like and a great insight

into that particular campus.

2. Intensive learning about a subject either virtually or in person or interning can help someone to better understand what it would be like to be in that type of field or business. Is it right for them?

3. A research experience can be amazing, and these are next to impossible for teenagers to find on their own.

4. Having a meaningful experience can inspire intellectual curiosity in a young person and result in personal growth of many kinds.

At the end of the day, students should choose to participate in paid extracurricular activities if they feel they will learn and benefit from them. The decision should not be grounded in thinking that it will move the needle for their college applications. Remember that “fit to major” is important but can be accomplished without writing a check.


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