Are Students Learning the Wrong Lesson From Top Tutors?

In the quest for the prized Ivy League admission, private tutoring is the go-to strategy for those desperate to keep up with—or stay ahead of—the Joneses. Maybe it works. And maybe students are getting the message that they just aren’t good enough.

Illustration by Fred Harper.
Illustration by Fred Harper

Take out your No. 2 pencil.

Choose the phrase that best defines private tutoring:

nthony) High-end racket

b) Legitimate leg up for motivated students

c) Pressure-release valve for parental anxiety

d) De rigueur fixture of elite city schools

e) All of the above

This question is not on the SAT or the ACT, but it is one that keeps New York City parents awake at night—and keeps a behemoth industry afloat. The high-end, high-touch and often very high-cost boutique pre-college test-prep industry is flourishing, and along with it, the tutoring field: Americans spent $15 billion on academic tutors in 2012, a small slice of the global tutoring market (epicenter, Asia) that’s expected to surpass $102.8 billion by 2018. It’s particularly prevalent among highly engaged parents whose academic ambitions for their children start young—as early as preschool—and persist, gathering momentum as a child climbs up the grades. Many families book academic coaching in middle school and continue through high school—at a monthly tab of $2,000 or more.

The trend toward bespoke tutoring is on the rise, too, according to tutors, parents and schools. So many kids are getting extra (hired) help that some of New York’s elite private schools have instituted a kind of honor code, asking students to disclose “who supported you in this homework assignment.” It’s obvious that plenty of kids are not going it alone. “You play the game because everyone else is doing it,” said one father of two. “You know it’s nuts, but no one wants to penalize their kid.”

The traditional rationale for engaging tutors in remediation or filling gaps in basic instruction is inarguable: If little Emma can’t quite conjugate her French irregular verbs, it makes sense to engage Mlle. Dauphinois for extra help. But more often, parents hire tutors to give their children “an edge” over the hordes of Ivy-aspiring competition. They hire tutors because their friends are hiring tutors; they hire tutors because they can be engaged to do work that parents are unavailable, unable, or unwilling to do. They hire tutors because the tutor is a kind of high-powered human shortcut to a desired end—although, as every tutor discloses to every client, results vary, and nothing is guaranteed.

Another question set not on the SAT:

a) Does high-end tutoring work? Yes. It’s a basic axiom of education that more instruction, and more individualized instruction, yields “significantly higher outcomes,” as reported in Effects of Teacher-Student Ratio in Response to Intervention Approaches. Uninterrupted individual attention means fewer distractions, lessons tailored to the child’s specific strengths and weaknesses, and closer monitoring than is possible in a class or a small-group setting. Others assert that taking kids out of groups limits the shaming response to making mistakes—and provides a “safe” space to try, err and learn.

b) Pace Machiavelli, does the end justify the means? In fact, the ROI is impossible to quantify—and the potential merits entail risk. Roxana Reid, owner of Smart City Kids, counsels families seeking seats at the city’s “most competitive schools.” But she worries that intensive tutoring can “confer an undue burden” on young students, because it puts too many kids under outsize pressure to perform (they can do the math on what their parents are spending). Plus, she says, there’s a meta-message that undermines kids’ often-fragile confidence: “Kids sense, ‘I’m not enough, I need more support, there’s something wrong with me.’ ”


The Business

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Individual tutoring, familiar from novels of bygone centuries, was once the province of well-fixed aristocrats, who engaged private tutors to school their progeny. Today, that antique mode has been revived by legions of city parents (and the tutors they support), eager to boost their young scion’s access to elite colleges and universities, with the Ivies at the top of the totem pole. The concerted effort to lift academics—and test scores—speaks to social anxiety, perceived and actual academic competitiveness, and the peer pressure many families (and students) feel to keep up, much less excel.
Just as it blends old and new, the present-day boutique tutoring embodies a certain duality: As a service tailored to individual students, it’s a highly personalized amalgam of deliberate instruction, combined with a double dollop of coaching and coaxing.

No one knows how much tutoring helps achieve the ultimate goal of many parents and students: getting into the sought-after prestige college.

And it does not come cheap. While some agencies offer Columbia-undergrad tutors at “bargain” rates of $50 or $75 an hour, many more charge upward of $200-$800 for the analyst’s 50-minute hour. Some charge even more: 28-year-old Anthony-James Green, founder of Test Prep Authority, who tutors exclusively via Skype, charges $1,500 for a 90-minute session as part of a required 14-session package, and claims an average 430-point gain on the SAT (on the old 2,400 score). Do the math; that’s a cool $21,000. (Mr. Green offers an online version of his technique, and boasts a slightly lower, but still substantial, average gain of 380 points.)

Mr. Green is a pioneer—he’s been Skype-tutoring since 2010 and founded his business four years earlier—but he isn’t a kook: He is booked up four years in advance, he says, with parents reserving his services while little Sophia’s in middle school, and holding space for siblings.

Tutors come to students’ homes. They meet at a neighborhood Starbucks. They trek out to the Hamptons or Montauk in summertime; school breaks are perfect for prepping. And good thing, too, as parents count on tutors’ support year-round: “You have gotten my daughter through middle and high school,” one mother wrote, on a tutor’s online message board. “There is always someone on her schedule to help out.” Someone who’s not a parent, in point of fact.

“All parents want to give their kid an edge,” Ms. Reid said. “But I don’t know that we’re actually helping” when private tutors routinely prop up kids for life’s predictable challenges—like the SAT.

The Savvy Zeitgeist-Tappers

Advantage Testing, founded nearly 30 years ago by one-time corporate lawyer Arun Alagappan, is widely regarded as either the “hero or despoiler of the pre-college landscape,” according to Forbes. Mr. Alagappan’s academic pedigree is flawless—Princeton undergrad, Harvard law—and he has built an elite tutoring army, a veritable “Who’s Who of the Ivy League,” according to Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. (“Everybody goes to them!”)

(Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images)
(Photo: Glen Cooper/Getty Images)

His company began in New York and now extends across nine states and the Atlantic Ocean, to Paris, France; he has founded a nonprofit to provide services to high-need students, but readily acknowledges the elite nature of the work, with a helpful bit of context. As the Advantage Testing website notes:

“The cost of an independent [private] high school and college education can amount to more than $300,000. [With] private grade school, the total can exceed $500,000. The amount families spend [on tutoring] represents a small percentage of that total.”

(Note that Advantage’s totals are for one child, not a family. And the six-figure estimates vastly understate actual costs: Undergrad tuition alone can easily run a quarter-million, before living expenses—and private school tuition ranges from the mid-$30,000s to $40,000 a year.)

Advantage takes the financial bull by the proverbial horns on its website: “The fees we charge are comparable to, not higher than, those of leading professionals in other fields.” Expensive is relative, of course, but Mr. Alagappan’s tutor corps bill at rates of $225 to $775 for 50 in-person minutes—with double sessions required. (Mr. Alagappan’s personal tutoring rates are higher still.) Some work with students for a brief sojourn, others stay with a child—or a family—for years.

For many families, hiring a private tutor forces a thorny question: If my neighbors are doing this, if my friends are hiring tutors, am I hobbling my child’s prospects by NOT hiring tutors? Guilt and fear are powerful motivators, for parents as well as their offspring.

The Landscape

This dilemma is not new. What is new is the timing. During the late-20th century, the issue surfaced in high school, but families today often hire tutors before kindergarten—for their preschoolers. The reason is constant: The elusive, competitive edge—only now, the pressure is to gain access to a “competitive kindergarten,” a new construct in the dictionary of horrifying oxymorons.

Does tutoring work? Yes, but no algorithm or objective metrics exist to quantify how much tutoring will yield a desired outcome. Is tutoring guaranteed to get results strong enough to assure Ivy League admission? No, and no tutors promise those kinds of outcomes. The truth is, no one knows how much tutoring helps achieve the ultimate goal of many parents and students: getting into the sought-after prestige college.

And for a cottage industry that bills law-partner rates, tutors face scant regulation. (One told the Observer, “It’s the Wild West.”) There are no objective metrics defining success, and no public obligation to disclose outcomes. These special, specialized services play into the deepest insecurities of competitive and ambitious parents who seek—with the very best interest at heart, of course—to smooth the way for their kids’ academic ascent and, the thinking goes, eventual success.

The tutors themselves are clear-eyed about the work’s transactional nature: While most say they love working with students—and many surely do—they are gaming the system on behalf of children born into great privilege.

Standardized tests are “a blatant class indicator,” says Test Prep’s Mr. Green, and the system itself is “completely ridiculous and ludicrous”—but no other objective tool yet exists to evaluate college applications. The flip side of this, says Mr. Green, is that admissions officers expect that children of affluent, educated parents will have been test-prepped—and should have the test scores to show for it.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Green sees tutoring as essential, beyond just its help with testing. “Even the great private schools are lacking the element of one-on-one attention,” he says, “and that’s what students need to thrive,” although that notion is pie in the sky to 99.99 percent of students.

Mr. Green also provides some big-picture college guidance—although “a lot of my clients have paid college advisors, outside of school.” He says he’s “good at crafting overall application strategies” and helping students develop “coherent narratives of who they are.”

And he’s never at a loss for clients. Which is where word of mouth comes in.

The Families

Eavesdrop on the chatter at PTA meetings and Pilates classes, and on websites like UrbanBaby and Park Slope Parents, where parents of a certain stripe swap strategies across the virtual picket fence. Your boss’ kid got into Harvard with Tutor A—you move heaven and earth to book Tutor A for your DC (dear child, for the unfamiliar). Your child says all her friends go to Tutor Z, why can’t she? And quick-like, she’s slotted into Tutor Z’s weekly schedule.

New York Family magazine editor Eric Messinger, one-time NYC public school student and father of two, says, “The intensity of well-educated city parents to scrutinize their kid’s academic path is so much greater now,” than it was a generation ago. On one hand, parents get into the groove because everyone else is doing it—no one wants to hobble their kids when other kids have access. On the other, schools and colleges are increasingly demanding more from students. As the demands escalate, and pressures to achieve increase in parallel, Mr. Messinger says, more kids need help.

Admissions counselor Roxana Reid has observed that tutoring plays an increasingly prominent role in kids’ everyday lives.

“I don’t embrace the belief that kids absolutely need tutoring,” she said. “There’s something being compromised—the working-things-out kind of independence and problem-solving that builds character.” Young people who are shepherded through every decision—and nearly every after-school hour—miss out on the daily opportunity to build their own resources, to exercise the muscle of self-reliance and develop the kind of social and emotional grit that will support them once they fledge the nest and head off to college.

Ms. Reid echoes Mr. Messinger’s concerns about accelerated timing—and pressures. “Kids are developing transcripts at 2 and 3 years old,” she said, building baby resumes thick with baby swim and language-immersion playgroups—in structured, adult-supervised settings.

Parents think, “the more exposure a child has, the smarter they will be, and the more prepared they will be for lower school.” This is not true, Ms. Reid counsels. But it’s a gamble many parents are willing to take.

But buying too deeply into the tutor-required ethos is not without risk: Kids can get the meta-message that they’re not smart enough without hired help—that they need more help than their own resources can offer, that there’s something wrong with them. No parent invests tens of thousands in tutoring with the goal of whittling their child’s confidence to a nub, but the risk persists.

“Parents believe the edge will help their child,” Ms. Reid says. As long as that belief holds, tutoring will thrive.

The Outlier

Tess Cobrinik, now in her first year at USC, was educated among the most elite cohort of NYC public school students, as a K-12 student at Hunter. She chose to prep for pre-college exams without a tutor—unlike most of her friends.

“An SAT tutor is the same as a personal trainer for fitness. You hire these people to yell at you til you do things on your own.”—Tess Cobrinik

“A lot of them spent a lot of money on tutors. A lot had outside college counselors or writing and essay coaches. They’d say, ‘Oh, I can’t hang out, I gotta do prep.’ ”

When they learned Ms. Cobrinik wasn’t prepping with a tutor, some responded, “Oh—you’re self-studying?”(“You mean ‘studying?’ ” she’d answer. To which her friends would say—“Oh, that’s crazy, that’s amazing.”)

“An SAT tutor is the same as a personal trainer for fitness,” Ms. Cobrinik said. “You hire these people to yell at you til you do things on your own. The service that you’re paying for—the trainer or the tutor—they both give you tips and tricks, just to make sure you do what you can do.”

While Ms. Cobrinik had the smarts and the discipline—not to mention, the academic record and test scores—to make her own way to USC, she remains an outlier among her peers and other students who carry the twin generation-spanning weights of ambition and privilege. Whether she’s actually an anomaly can’t be known; maybe there are thousands of Tess Cobriniks out there, absolutely capable of making their own way—but too cowed by their parents, their schools, the tutoring machine and the attendant peer pressure to consider the attempt.

It’s often said that success on the SAT depends on learning the tricks of the test: Ruling out obvious false answers and choosing the best among possible good answers, if the actual answer isn’t plain. In the same way, questions about the worth of tutoring have multiple answers, depending on who’s asking. What’s certain is that privilege begets privilege—and the so-called level playing field is not.

Now that you’ve “read the passage,” pick up that No. 2 pencil again, and complete the sentence:

Pre-college prepping with a private tutor _________________________.

  1. is an essential part of Ivy-bound applicants’ application process.
  2. exploits parental insecurities about their ambitions for their offspring and their child’s abilities.
  3. teaches students by example that their own resources are insufficient.
  4. creates dependency on outside adults that undermines teenagers’ eventual independence.
  5. All of the above

Are Students Learning the Wrong Lesson From Top Tutors?