Rational choice theory in economics assumes that individuals use rational calculations to make rational choices and achieve outcomes that are aligned with their own personal objectives. When it comes to making decisions about tutoring, however, rationality tends to go out the window. We generally understand how to connect standard pricing to durable goods like SUVs and iPhones as well as more fleeting fare like Big Macs and Frappacinos. We also accept–often grudgingly–the hourly rates for common service industries like medicine, law, and home repair. Once we drift from those structured areas into the open country of educational services, though, we fall prey to every awful assumption in the book, the main one being, “No teacher deserves that much an hour.”
That arbitrary maximum hourly rate each one of us sets in our heads for fair teacher pay can vary widely. Some of my colleagues charge upwards of $400 per hour and likely deserve more; others practically give their time away. Tutor rate increases dramatically in metropolitan areas and plummets just as significantly in rural areas, but baselines tend to wax and wane with experience and reputation, the elements that should matter most in any education buying scenario. Why do experience and reputation matter so much in tutors?
Experience, measured in both years and students, describes the length, depth, and breadth of a tutor’s body of work, which in turn suggests the likelihood that educator has seen and worked through the exact issue you need help with.
Reputation, measured directly in referrals and indirectly through social proof, ties into how successful a tutor has been in helping students and families achieve their goals.
If you find yourself seeking a tutor, you have certain goals in mind (e.g. better grades, higher scores) and seek to meet or surpass those goals in as efficient, effective, and enjoyable a manner as possible. Use experience and reputation as your twin guide stars, and you’ll likely land the perfect partner in your educational ambitions, assuming you keep two truths in mind:
1. Experience and reputation both cost money.
2. Experience and reputation matter most in the actual tutors you work with, not the organizations they work for.
The first truth probably makes intuitive sense; the most experienced and respected tutors can obviously command the highest rates and still make you feel like you are not paying enough. Amazing tutors really are that good. But why don’t those traits in educational organizations ensure a higher level of quality among its staff? The answer to that question also makes intuitive sense if you just think of the high school you attended. Your school may have been established for decades, if not longer. Did that mean that every one of your teachers was invested with the institution’s grand history and accumulated wisdom? Were the administrators uniformly experienced and effective? Most people would say not.
When shopping for tutors, you can’t help but encounter well-known companies with decades of experience and thousands of teachers coast to coast. The brand names tell compelling success stories and presumably aggregate an abundance of industry-leading experience in their corporate offices. When you work with an organization like that, you definitely pay for all that accumulated experience and reputation, but do you really reap their benefits? Not if the consistent quality of the tutor that is working directly with you and your child matters most to you. To be sure, just take a look at how much the organizations that charge you top dollar pay their tutors:
My colleague Brian Eufinger of Edison Prep–a bargain at any price–researches the pay rates of national and regional education companies to prove the simple point that you generally do get what you pay for, as long as you focus primarily on how much your tutor gets paid. When you work with a company that charges $80/hr and pays tutors $12/hr, you get a tutor worth $12/hr. This is not to say that you can’t get lucky and land a great tutor in such circumstances. People can and sometimes do. But the likelihood that a tutor with the experience and reputation to best meet your goals will stick around to deliver world-class instruction while accepting less than a cashier at a fast food restaurant makes seems infinitesimal.
Of course, the experience and reputation of the founder or leader of an educational enterprise does accrue to its tutors, assuming that individual directly trains and oversees the staff. I worked at Kaplan Test Prep a long time ago, but not so long that I was trained by or even met Stanley Kaplan, the father of the test preparation industry. Any influence Kaplan himself may have exerted on the employees of his eponymous company was diluted by innumerable days and intermediaries. Contrast this with a company like Chariot Learning, where the founder hires, trains, and manages every teacher to ensure that students receive the full benefits of extensive experience and reputation. Not that my influence would matter if I couldn’t attract brilliant, dedicated, and coachable educators. That is why Chariot Learning tutors are paid two to four times the averages listed above. When you work with a company that invests in staff, you get far more value for your investment in education, because you work with a tutor who is treated and paid like a skilled professional rather than a day laborer.
Exceptions to the basic rule that you get the tutor you pay for may abound, but simple common sense suggests that we ignore the rule at our peril. The quantifiable qualities of experience and reputation serve as proxies for indefinable but essential attributes like judgment, skill, and intelligence. If you want to ensure that the tutor who works directly with you or your child possesses an abundance of those critical qualities, just ask yourself one question as you explore your options, “Would the smart, skillful tutor with excellent judgment that I want to work with work for this rate?”
If you have to ask, chances are that you already know the answer…