WITH only a few weeks left until school starts, the tutoring business is gearing up. And it is one industry in America that seems immune to recession. More parents are paying for tutors for their children.
Paul Sullivan writes about strategies that the wealthy use to manage their money and their overall well-being.
Spending on tutors is growing at more than 5 percent a year, said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association. This is down from yearly growth of 8 to 10 percent in 2007, when the education research firm EduVentures estimated the size of the tutoring industry at $5 billion to $7 billion a year. But it is still strong, given the state of most people’s personal finances. And Sandi Ayaz, executive director of the National Tutoring Association, said the number of tutors her organization had certified had grown 18 percent in each of the last five years.
While tutors once focused on helping children who were falling behind in particular subjects or had a learning disability, they are now being used far more to guide students through particularly tough courses, insure their grades are equal to or above their peers’ and, in the end, polish a child’s college application. This costs parents a lot of money, and the question is, What returns should they expect for their investment? And how does that desire mesh with what is right?
Before I go further, I want to address the question of fairness, which is ever-present in the world of high-priced tutors. The simple answer is that it is surely not fair that wealthy children can have private tutors when poor children cannot.
But many things in life are not fair, and I want to look at tutoring from an investment point of view. Is there any way to measure what parents and children are getting for all this money? What can a tutor reasonably be expected to do? Is this money well spent?
SHOPPING AROUND Even with the increase in the use of tutors, parents are not necessarily spending money the way they once did. Some are, of course, since money is still no object when it comes to their children. Yet even in Manhattan, where tutors are particularly popular, plenty of parents are shopping around for less expensive options.
“People have been pulling back for tutors charging $250 to $400 an hour,” said Sandy Bass, editor and publisher of Private School Insider, an online newsletter. “They’re still using tutors, but they’re searching around for more reasonably priced help. In Manhattan, $85 to $150 is the acceptable range for reasonably priced.”
Mr. Pines of the Education Industry Association said he had seen the same reassessment in the rest of the country, where the average rate was $45 to $65 an hour. Parents who once would have had in-home tutors are going to tutoring centers, while some using the centers have cut back on hours or moved to online-only platforms. He said a rising player in this field is TutorVista, an online education company based in Bangalore, India, that charges $99.99 a month for help on an Internet platform.
Where access to tutors appears to be drying up is for people with limited means. In the past, the issue was not whether they could afford it, but rather whether they could finance it. And Jeffrey Cohen, the president and chief executive of Sylvan Learning Centers, which operates one of the largest chains of tutoring franchises in the country, said the lack of financing had been a big blow to less wealthy families.
“Programs do exist, but they’re hard to come by,” Mr. Cohen said. “Prerecession families with a decent credit score could get approved to finance these programs. They could put themselves on a multiyear monthly payment schedule.”
HELP OR HINDRANCE? Money can’t buy you love, the song says, but what should it buy? The cardinal sin of tutoring is writing a student’s college essay. This is the murkiest part of the industry. After all, the first line in the National Tutoring Association’s ethics code is: “I understand that my role as a tutor is to never do the student’s work for him or her.”
Not surprisingly, people in the industry cringe when the issue is brought up, particularly with online tutoring. “That’s where the parent has to play a role of oversight,” Mr. Pines said. “It has to be monitored at home, and I can’t let Mom and Dad off the hook for that.”
But the bigger question that springs from this is, How do you make sure the money you’re spending is benefiting your child?
Helping children improve in areas where they are struggling is clearly important. But Ms. Bass said any tutoring should bolster standardized test scores. “You’re not going to go from a 550 to an 800 on the SAT, but you can count on a 100-point rise,” she said. “A lot of that is just getting a kid used to taking the test.”
This has reached its absurd extreme. Ms. Bass said most private schools in New York had started to discount the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment, more commonly called the E.R.B. after the Educational Records Bureau, the company that administers it, because parents hired tutors to coach their 4-year-olds on acing it.
While this is one way to spend your money, it may not be the best way to teach children the long-term skills they will need after they get into that top kindergarten. It may also hinder them more than help them.
“I always say be careful in doing this,” said Lloyd Thacker, a former college admissions officer and the executive director of the Education Conservancy. “Not only does it jeopardize your child’s ‘studenthood’ — those qualities that make learning happen — but someone finding your way for you and packaging you in the process jeopardizes your ability to be yourself.”
In other words, hiring a tutor to help a child who is struggling in math is a good use of money. Hiring one so the child does not have to push himself is a bad one.
“In an ideal world, students should realize they can do it themselves,” said Mr. Thacker, an admitted opponent of the hyper-tutoring culture. And many of them could, but would parents risk letting them try?
HARVARD OR BUST A financier I know who was educated at a trifecta of top institutions — St. Paul’s School, Yale and Columbia Law — observed that wealthy parents today were paying for tutoring and private school as a forward contract on the Ivy League, with anything less being a disappointment.
This was a cynical take, for sure, but it stuck with me: what constitutes success after paying for thousands of hours of tutoring at $100-plus an hour? The argument for this extra attention as a means to create well-rounded students is not convincing, since private tutoring in college tends to be for remedial help.
School competition is clearly part of parents’ thinking, but it’s not just for college. “Parents are concerned about how their children rank against their friends, their neighbors, kids in the next town over, the next state over, even the next country over,” Mr. Cohen said.
On the positive side, for children, tutors can often comfort them and let them talk to someone beyond their parents. “They can say what they want and that person will translate it to Mom and Dad,” Ms. Bass said. “That’s what the kid needs because they’re afraid of letting Mom and Dad down.”
This therapeutic value is one good use of the money, but so, too, is how it can make a child feel about school.
“The more qualitative measures of success are things like attitude, self-confidence and the willingness to finish homework,” Mr. Pines said. “Parents appreciate when kids can get their homework done without Mom hovering over them.”
It’s not Harvard, but it could lead to happiness.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 21, 2010, on page B5 of the New York edition.