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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Rug-Rat Race

Are you a college-educated woman? Do you find that you spend an increasing amount of time driving your children to their activities? Are you hoping all these extra-curriculars will get them into a good college?

Then congratulations: you’re officially caught up in what UC San Diego economist Valerie Ramey calls “The Rug-Rat Race.” Ramey and her husband, Garey Ramey, also a UCSD economist (pictured below), have described the phenomenon in a working paper of the same name for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Valerie Ramey admits she got caught up in “The Rug-Rat Race” herself. Her son played water polo. Her daughter developed a passion for horseback riding, which took up six hours a week. Ramey was hauling saddles and shoveling hay—and sometimes manure.

At first, the Rameys thought they were just caught up in a fad that affected their neighborhood. But after reviewing data from 12 U.S. surveys from 1965 to 2007 describing how people spend their time, they realized they were onto something bigger. “It was a national phenomenon,” Valerie Ramey says.

The researchers said they were surprised that most of the increases came from time spent with older, school-age children. Basically, parents spent an awful lot of time driving them from one activity to the next.

Once again, the explanation came from the Rameys’ own life. Valerie Ramey said she had always believed good grades were enough to get you into college. But as the years went by, she kept hearing about top students who weren’t admitted to the university of their choice. Activities, the Rameys started realizing, were just as important as grades for college admissions. Parents were filling their children’s schedules to help get them into a good college.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers compared childcare data for the United States and Canada, where college admissions are a lot less competitive, and found that the amount of time Canadian parents spent on childcare remained flat during the past two decades. 

It is unclear how long U.S. parents will have to compete in the Rug-Rat Race. The number of high school graduates eligible for college will drop once children of the baby boomers graduate. And, says Ramey, citing the “free range children” movement and the book The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson, “I think we’re already seeing a backlash.”

—Ioana Patringenaru