Should I Get Academic Tutoring? Consider the Opportunity Cost.

Posted by Sam Ashworth on 12/20/13 9:03 AM


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We could probably tutor you for that, though.

It may be a strange thing to read on a tutoring company's website, but not everyone needs tutoring.

Over more than seven years as an SAT tutor and writing tutor in Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, I have coached plenty of students who were disorganized, hyperactive, or just plain hated the whole idea of tutoring. While they were frustrating, there was always a way to help those students. That's a tutor's entire job: find a way. The truth is, the only clients that really defeated me were the ones who simply did not need to be there. I have taught 6 year-olds whose parents—even though he was reading above his grade level—thought he needed to have someone force him to read aloud for an hour each week, which is exhausting for a professional actor, to say nothing of a 1st grader. It was thoroughly unpleasant for the boy, and equally unpleasant for me. I have had SAT clients who came in with a 2300 baseline score, and I had to explain to them that hiring a private SAT tutor was not going to get them into Harvard, because if they couldn't have done it with a 2300, a 2400 will not change anything, and that they would be better off focusing on their extracurriculars, or just relaxing. And then there have been the students who were using tutoring to avoid going to their teacher for help, which is what they really needed.

This causes a great dilemma for the tutor: the desire to fulfill the client's request conflicts with the tutor's desire to do what is best for the student.

So why am I saying this? Because the decision to get tutoring is a complex one.

Of course, the vast majority of clients who call us do clearly need tutoring and coaching, and we love that we're able to help them. But I sometimes receive calls from parents, asking about getting a biology tutor in New York, or a geometry tutor in Cambridge, and it turns out that the call is motivated not by the fact that their child is struggling with these subjects (actually, they point out, their child is really good at these subjects!), as by the fear that “everyone else she goes to school with is surrounded a phalanx of tutors, and I don't want her to fall behind.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to excel and be competitive. The problem emerges when we think about what economists call “opportunity cost.”

Opportunity cost essentially means that by choosing one thing from a set of mutually-exclusive alternatives, one is “costing” oneself the opportunity to pursue those alternatives. In this case, it means that by spending time with a tutor, or doing supplemental homework, the student is making a choice not to do something else, like pursue an extracurricular or focus on another subject. In other words, he is costing himself the opportunity to do at least one other thing. We all make these judgments all the time—we do it whenever we ask ourselves, “is this the best use of my time?”

The question parents and students need to ask themselves is, “is the opportunity cost of tutoring favorable to me? Is it the most productive use of my time?”

If a student is struggling with a subject, or needs help getting motivated, or simply needs homework help and study skills coaching, and these difficulties are causing real academic difficulties, then the benefits of tutoring far outweigh the costs. If someone is applying to med school, but lives in a rural area, online MCAT tutoring is an acceptable, necessary cost. The same is true of college application coaching—for something so competitive, any little edge can help. But if a student is pretty solid in physics, but essay-writing gets him down, then it does not make sense to allocate extra resources to physics. This is how tutors wind up across a table from a student who neither wants nor needs to be there, and that does no one any good.

Like I said, the vast majority of our clients have made these cost-benefit analyses, and they've made the right call in coming to us—and we would never presume to dictate to parents how they should allocate resources to their children. The point I want to make is not that tutoring should be a path of last resort—absolutely not—or that parents should be especially hesitant. The point is simply that while at Cambridge Coaching, we have tutors that are trained to handle any request, from MD admissions consulting to microeconomics tutoring, but all of our skill doesn't mean much without the most important thing of all: a student that truly needs our help.


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Tags: study skills, middle school, college, high school