Tutoring News Post

What is a Great Tutor Worth?

I've been in the test-prep business since 1998, when I tutored Boston high school students through a community service program at Harvard.  But it wasn't until my first gig at the Princeton Review after graduation that I started to understand the economics of the tutoring business.

When Princeton hired me, my starting pay rate was $18/hr, which at the time I considered to be an incredible sum.  Before long I was working 50-hour weeks for the company, and making good money for a 22 year-old.  What I didn't realize until later, however, is that Princeton was charging $120/hr for my services--in other words, even though I was doing all the work, the company was making five times as much as I was.

This didn't seem fair to me, so I came up with a strategy--I would start my own tutoring service, charging half as much as Princeton did.  There were two distinct advantages to this strategy:  I would be making three times as much as I used to, while charging less than half of what Princeton charged. I could work less, make more, and give more of my attention to my students. It was a win-win-win for everybody, except my former employer of course.

I set my rate at a reasonable $55/hr, started placing some ads in the classifieds, and the clients started flooding in.  In 2003 I moved to my current home of San Diego, California and started from scratch with a new client base, but in less than two years, my schedule was packed yet again.

However, there was a problem.  Once I got too popular, my schedule would fill up, my free time would slowly start to vanish, and I would get stressed out.  So I came up with a solution: each time my schedule would fill up, I would inform my current students that I was raising my hourly rate, but for new clients only.  When they finished taking their tests, or sending in their applications, as my students always do eventually (most of my students work with me for anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years), I would start anew at a slightly higher rate.  Over time, I would repeat this process anytime my schedule became too hectic. 

Over time, my rates became so high that they were not affordable for the average client.  This is when I started hiring other tutors.  My main emphasis when doing so was that McElroy Tutoring would only take a small cut of what we charged for our tutors, as opposed to the gargantuan cut that the big companies took.   Although some of our tutors may have high rates such as $120/hr, at McElroy Tutoring we ensure that the tutor takes home the lion's share of that fee.  There is a huge difference between a tutor for a big company charging $120 and getting paid $20, and a tutor for a company like McElroy, charging $120 and getting paid $100.  The more affordable tutors are, the more students they have to fit into their schedule in order to pay their bills. A cheap tutor is not just cheap--he/she is also stretched thin and stressed out. 

Today, my basic rate stands at $295/hr.  With package discounts of up to 25%, my rate can be as low as $220/hr.  My schedule is not always entirely full, but that's OK with me, because the fewer students I have, the more individual attention I can give them.  Nearly every day, I talk to someone who acts shocked and appalled that a private tutor would dare demand such an outrageous fee.  But there are still plenty of others who think I am well worth it.

Sometimes they will mention another tutor that they are considering.  "She charges only $100/hr.  Do you think you are twice as good as she is?" 

My response: "I might not be twice as good, but I'm definitely better."   

Let me give you a car analogy that I frequently use to illustrate my point.  I drive a 2002 Honda Accord, because I see no need to overpay for a luxury car such as a BMW.  That's because in my mind, a car is for getting from point A to point B.  However, if I were driving my car in a race, and every second counted, then you better believe that I would choose the BMW.  So when every point counts, a professional, expert tutor is well worth the price.  And with cost comes commitment:  my students work hard and pay attention during lessons, partially because they know that my services are not cheap.

Are my rates too high?  It's all relative.  Relative to the importance and stakes of the task at hand, your personal and familial priorities, your academic goals, and of course, your budget.  I know that my rates are quite high for a private tutor, but they are perfectly average in other professions.  If you got in trouble with the law, would you hire a cut-rate lawyer?  Of course not.  Yes, many of my clients live in lavish seaside mansions, and have millions of dollars socked away in trust funds.  But many of my other clients are middle-class, and simply see my services as a wise investment--and frequently, their investment pays off in spades, through major score improvements, academic scholarships and admission to prestigious universities.

This is not to suggest that price always equals quality.  There is a 26 year-old tutor in New York who claims (emphasis on "claims") that he teaches SAT full-time at $1,000/hr, for example.  There will always be those who try to game the system and rip off gullible people.  But there is nothing wrong with a full-time, professional tutor charging a fee that is proportionate to his or her abilities, experience, qualifications and talents.

To all the other tutors out there:  don't be afraid to charge what you are worth.  Sure, plenty of people will turn you down, but others will respect the value of your time, knowledge and expertise.  And with the time you save, you can pursue your other passions, or continue to hone your craft in other ways, such as taking the SAT and ACT three times a year, as I do, or by writing test-prep vocabulary books, SAT Critical Reading Guides, or SAT Math Guides.


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