06/12/2006 07:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tutors Take Manhattan

In New York City, a year of SAT tutoring can carry a price tag of $25,000, all to secure a competitive edge over middle class America.

In my business -- SAT tutoring -- you get used to sighs. A client's mother frets over the sheer amount of work her daughter has to do to get her score up until she reaches the resigned moment, when she will sigh and observe that no one thought you could prepare for the SAT back when she took it -- it was "untutorable." Bemoaning all the work her child is going through to prepare, she'll assume the change is generational, that today's youth are under more pressure to achieve on the test, that there now exists a $310 million-a-year test prep industry where there was none before. But in Manhattan, the heightened pressures are also geographical.

Princeton Review and Kaplan offices may have proliferated throughout the country, but in Manhattan the market is further weighted by exclusive private tutors, working solo and through boutique firms. Their one-on-one sessions start at $100 an hour and in a few rare instances can reach as high as $1000 an hour. The top firm in Manhattan advises its clients to meet for 150 minutes a week throughout the student's junior year. If the tutor charges a typical rate of, say, $395 an hour, the year's tutoring will run $25,000. Of course, many of the clients who hire these tutors also own penthouses and limos. But once some students at the nation's top private schools have SAT tutors, and brag of score increases as high as 400 points, their peers feel they need the same to compete. And some of those peers are merely upper middle class, for whom $25,000 is a noticeable strain.

The elite private tutor is typically ivy-educated and falls into one of two categories -- a twenty-something pursuing an artistic career on the side, or someone older who has made a career out of college-prep. They are presentable, well-spoken, and are treated by doormen as guests more than as employees. For their extraordinary pay, they offer test strategies but also life coaching, and (in such a high-stakes environment) psychological counseling. Of course, all the top tutors did very well on the test themselves -- generally in the top percentile -- and their clients' hope is that the tutors will be able to transfer some of that aptitude to their charges.

But tutoring doesn't raise scores just by dint of the hours the tutors spend at their students' desks and dining room tables. The top tutoring firm also requires its students take a practice SAT each weekend of their spring semester, at a charge of $115 an administration. The firm rents out a high school and administers an authentic SAT under real conditions -- accurate timing, breaks, a proctor in the room. Students ideally take between thirteen and seventeen tests during their junior year, and at 3.5 hours an administration that means cramming a total of a hundred extra hours into a junior spring already overburdened with college essays and advanced placement exams.

The New York test-prep industry bloomed in the mid-eighties, and since then both the billing rates and the proportion of the student population involved have skyrocketed. Tutoring is great business -- whether it's great education is another question. Students build vocabulary, yes, and brush up on some remedial math skills. However, the bulk of the work tutors undergo with students is test-specific -- focusing, for example, not on improving reading skills but rather on eliminating answer choices to get more questions correct. The aim is a high score on a one-shot test -- more akin to doping sprinters than building fitness.

Students raised on Park Avenue are born into family situations in which overachieving merely maintains the status quo, and therefore the market is primed for anyone offering services that provide an edge on local peers. Tutoring follows the lucrative philosophy of advertising: if you can manufacture a need, people with disposable resources will find ways to fill it. In zip-codes as wealthy and competitive as Manhattan's, it isn't hard to figure that someone would eventually find a way to quantify college admissions, and turn that numbers game to a profit. But the wealthy aren't competing only against the wealthy, but also against those with less disposable income: the rest of us. The extent upper-crust Manhattan goes to in order to get top-college spots for its students is largely unknown to the rest of America -- one can only wonder at the outrage that slumbers in the rest of the country, waiting to be uncovered.