Can You Afford Your Child’s Senior Year in High School?

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When I started OutOfYourRut back in 2009, one of my bedrock rules was that the site would never be used as a place to rant. But it’s also true that if you live long enough, you’ll eat every word you’ve ever spoken.

I’m about to eat mine – but I don’t feel the least bit bad about this one.

Maybe I’m getting cranky with age, or maybe there’s just more to complain about than there used to be (that’s the one I like to believe!). Today I choose to eat my words ranting about high school – but mainly about senior year. My daughter is a senior this year, my son having graduated the year before last.

This post is a rant about the cost of senior year in high school – but maybe also a warning of what to expect when your kids reach that hallowed year of their lives. Everyone worries about paying for college, but I’m here to tell you that there will be a hurdle to jump before that, and it’s called senior year in high school.

Get your finances ready before it hits.

Extra fees to expect

4715271635_13450de1cf_n[1]Public school cost more now than it ever has, certainly more than it did when I was in high school. No single year costs more than senior year. There are all kinds of extra fees you pay when your kids are in school these days – sports and activity fees among the highest – but senior year carries a battery of it’s own special expenses, and you’d better have an extra $2,000 to $3,000 (or more) to be ready for it.

Here’s some of what you should be ready to pay:

Year book. Where I live, year books cost upward of $100, but that’s not all. You can pay a lot more if you have your child’s name engraved in the book, or have a “shout out” (parent’s congratulatory ad) somewhere in the book. When I was in high school, the book cost about $10 and there were no up sells. I think that was better – no pressure on the student and her family to compete for upgrades.

Senior photos. We just went through this phase and my wife and I felt completely violated. We paid $139 for the “sitting fee”, and thought that was it. But when we went to the photographers office suite, we found out it was only the beginning.

They take a bunch of photos at the photo shoot, but when you go to the photographers to choose the shots, you’re shown everything BUT the cap and gown photo that you think you‘re coming for. They put you in a warmly decorated room, offer you herbal tea and play soft music while a large computer screen on the wall shows you every one of the enhanced photos they took of your aspiring graduate.

This display had “dog and pony show” written all over it. The purpose was to breakdown your resistance to the up sell packages, that ran close to $2,000! No we didn’t fall for that, but they still have you on the ropes emotionally. We chose the cheapest package and added three additional shots. We felt lucky to get out with the lowest priced package for $281. But when you add in the sitting fee, that’s $420. For the cheapest package.

But your baby only graduates once, right? They’re counting on your thinking that way so they can get a bigger grab. Be forewarned.

When I was in high school, I think we paid $15 to produce a single photo for the year book, and that was it. No soft music, no herbal tea, no up sell. Personally, I find it disgusting that the schools are getting in bed with various merchants, and allowing them to put the hard sell for more dollars on the students families. A friend of mine in the photography business tells me that they do this because the schools get a cut of the loot. Why am I not surprised?

Class rings. Last I heard, this one is now around $350. Mine might have been $20 way back when. My son didn’t get this trophy, and my daughter won’t either.

Senior trip. I think this is a trip to Florida in the spring. They advertise that the cost is $170 per student. Our son tells us that the real cost is more on the order of $600 to $800, and the $170 is just the deposit. Given the sitting fee fiasco with the senior photos, I’m inclined to think he’s absolutely right about this. And nope, no senior class trip when I was in high school.

Prom. You can go on the cheap and look like a nerd for about $200 to $300, but you’re only young once right? Proms are held at prestigious clubs, and involve tuxedos, evening gowns, premium hair and make-up sessions, premium hotel stays the night after, lots of flowers, and of course, more photo shoots. Some parents even pay for limousines to chauffer their kids. You can spend thousands on this single event. Maybe I’m just too common, but this kind of opulence in middle class circles seems more than a little bit over the top. There was some of this at my high school, but nowhere near the scale it is now.

Cap and gown fee. When I graduated, we were loaned a cap and gown – maybe we paid a $5 rental fee, maybe not – but today you buy a custom fit cap and gown. That’s right, you buy it. It’s somewhere between $75 to $100. No more borrowing. Want to bet the schools aren’t getting a cut of that too?

Premium pricing seems to be the order of the day

Now I want to state something for the record: the high school that my kids attend(ed) is an outstanding school in every respect. But it is an upper middle class high school, and that may influence the above costs. Maybe it isn’t this extreme where you live. A lot of people around here – but probably not the majority – can comfortably afford all of this. The problem is that even if you can’t, you’re still forced into spending more than you would as a result of the increase in expectations.

There seems to be an effort to intimidate everyone into spending more, spearheaded by the schools themselves. It’s a thinly veiled attempt at premium pricing in the name of high school graduation. But that begs the obvious question: who benefits from this spending frenzy???

Since it’s all being promoted directly through the schools, it’s a safe bet that they’re getting a cut. That guarantees that the pressure won’t let up.

If people with more money are given the option at trading up on the “senior year experience”, what is the effect of this on the general community who can’t afford to do the same? What about the kids who come from families who specifically can’t? More important, why is there even an emphasis on premium pricing at a public school?

Ironically, I went to high school in a community with a similar demographic, but people weren’t being herded into up sells. Obviously it was a different time, a time when people in general were more practical minded. Back then, there was a lid on what you could spend on school related functions. Today, it looks like some sort of perverted arms race to see who can outdo everyone else. Why should a public school – any public school – promote such excess? And what kind of message does it send to the kids?

“Dear, we can’t afford public school”

I’ve made this point to my wife many times during the 14+ years that our kids have been in public schools. The schools are now asking the parents to provide school supplies, to fund various charitable collections, and to pay thousands of dollars in extra curricular fees for sports and music participation. And then there’s senior year.

Author and motivational speaker, Robert Ringer, who has six children of his own, wrote about what he referred to as “Brigadoon high schools”, so named because they bear a resemblance the mythical and surreal Brigadoon, the fantasy world from the musical by the same name. He calls these high schools – which he estimates represent about 10% of the high schools in America – publicly funded private high schools. They essentially cater to students from upper end families, and they foster an environment that resembles what is seen at elite private schools.

It is apparent that my kids attend(ed) just such a high school. We all want our kids to have the best educations they can get, but be forewarned – it will come at a steep price, even though it’s a public school. Senior year is just the last, best shot at excess.

Here are my suggestions for senior year:

  • Understand that an assault on your finances will happen in your child’s senior year, and have your mind and your bank account prepared.
  • Recognize that you don’t have to participate in all of it, and never at the maximum cost. We plan to keep it down to not more than $1,000 – no small feat when you consider the marketing/emotional forces marshaled against us!
  • If practical, switch your child(ren) into a non-Brigadoon high school – though I hear the spending pressure is happening at most high schools to one degree or another.

Does anyone else feel as if this senior year “do it for the kids” bacchanalia has gotten out of control? Is it much different at less “elite” schools?

( Photo by Jim, the Photographer )

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14 Responses to Can You Afford Your Child’s Senior Year in High School?

  1. That is a) completely fresh news to me, and b) heinous! The photography part was probably the most galling. Sounds like some market forces are needed here. Parents should clamor for either bidding wars between service providers, or, better, just no monopolies on school photography and other services. If you want to bring your kid to Sears for the photo, you should be able to. Hell, a self-taken good digital photo with the school in the background would almost certainly do the job!

  2. Yeah, every day is a rude awakening you might say. The amount of money we’re putting out undermines the whole concept of “public” school. When I was sitting in the photo show room, I was thinking exactly what you wrote, we could do the same thing at Sears or JC Penny for about 1/3 the price. Allowing a preferred vendor to upsell like that is really poor policy. But like I wrote in the post, I think the schools have a hand in the take, so they’ll let it keep rolling.

    The other thought that keeps running through my mind is that, have we become so spoiled as a culture that we now “require” thess kinds of services?

  3. Hi Kevin,
    Man! I am right there with you. My son graduated last year (off too college:/ ) and luckily I have a bit of cushion between my two; my daughter is a sophomore. Add to that three years of varsity football, dance, and softball. It is way out of control. I don’t have any experience with elite schools but hopefully that is included in the tuition! Thanks for your rant 😉

  4. Hi Karla, Our son was in the marching band for four years, and stage band for two. It was over $1,000 each year for marching band (plus volunteering and buying what ever the band was selling), then $450 per year for stage. It’s insane.

  5. Yeah, those portraits at JC Penney or Sears are definitely out. Location shots are in now. Especially on train tracks for some unknown reason.

  6. I’ve heard that Sammie, but want to hear something ridiculous? Outdoor shots weren’t offered. It was all indoor with props.

  7. I enjoyed your rant and think you should rant more often. I had done a post a while back, “It’s and honor” about all of the “honors” that are bestowed through the schools such has having my kids “nominated” for participation in some prestigious testing (which the parents are supposed to pay for), inclusion in “Who’s Who” (and getting hit up to buy the book) and umpteen other “opportunities” that sap the last dollar of the beleaguered parents. Your sentiments are shared – thank you.

  8. Thank you for your support G! I’m way past being over all of the sappy “do it for the children” sentimentality superficially aimed at the heart but actually targeting the wallets of parents. Your experiences show that it’s happening throughout the education system. The public schools have turned into a massive shakedown system that we’re all falling for “in the name of the children”. I’m glad my daughter is a senior, I’ve had as much of this as I can stomach.

    And yes, I’ll be doing a lot more rants in the future. There’s enough subterfuge happening out there to provide writing material for a lifetime. The official policy of this blog has changed!

  9. I have twins and this is killing me. We just spent nearly $1500 for prom for them and we did not even do the limos. Dress, hair, makeup, flowers, tickets, dinner, photos— Now we owe $100 senior dues each, $100 each sitting fee for senior pics that must be done by only recommended photographer to make it into yearbook, then on to cap and gown, sports fees for both, college visits, college application fees, ect, ect. ect. This is ridiculous but if you don’t participate then your child is penalized and the guilt is a driving factor too.

  10. I feel your pain Anita! There’s no way out of it either, since the schools have a way of shaming you into participating. The photographer for class pics was a real fiasco. When we went there to select the photos they were playing soft classical music, burning incense and serving us flavored water. We were cooked from the start. Then they showed us the upper end of the photo packages, which cost in the thousands. We ended up paying about $420, which we thought was a huge victory. But I’ll bet a lot of people paid thousands. I’m glad my kids are out now, I wouldn’t want to go through that again.

  11. We just did photos and the graduation package for our Senior. He is at a regular public school in Texas. The graduation package (i.e. announcements, thank you notes, cap/gown, tassel) I widdled down to $160. If we went with Josten’s, the promoted retailer, the ring would be a minimum $390 (the cheapest ring in their pamphlet says $240, but when you click to customize, it automatically goes to $390 before choosing anything). Yearbook is $65 with frills-$85 to add a 1/8th page senior ad on top of it. The photography company they used did photos at the school (one in tux, one in cap/gown, and one in a casual outfit of your choosing). They took 18 total pictures of these three outfits. We just got the link today to choose the poses and purchase. The cheapest package includes 1 pose for $149 (oh, but if you order w/i a week, shipping is free…about $15). As if you can just choose 1 pose out of that. I chose the 3 pose and I am paying $369. And he is lettering in chior. From I see the letter jackets are about $200, too. How are normal people supposed to afford this? We are not in an upscale part of town.

  12. Hi Ginger – This is exactly what I was talking about in the article. They nickel and dime you to death, and it adds up to real money – thousands of dollars. I’m not underplaying your experience, but we paid a lot more across the board. For example, you mentioned $200 for the letter jacket – my daughter’s was about $350. Thank God my son didn’t want one! And the photo package ran up to over $1,200 (you could go higher, but we stopped them before they did).

    Unfortunately, we were from the upscale part of Atlanta (but we’re not upscale) so you can see that the graduation industry works on a sliding scale. They’ll charge as much as the traffic will bear, which is usually determined by the richest 10% of the community, and everyone else is forced to either cough up the cash, or ungraciously bow out. In my opinion, the whole situation is disgusting.

  13. Adding insult to injury, I lost my job earlier this year so we’re trying to figure out how to pay for senior year w/o minimizing it for our son. We were living paycheck to paycheck before & now we are really struggling.

  14. Hi Kelly – You might have to get your son financially involved in the process. Like taking an after school job to pay for some of the perks he wants for his senior year. It can amount to thousands of dollars, and if you have other pressing financial needs, you need to take care of those first.

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