Are Tutors the New Waiters?

Graduates from Ivy League universities and other top colleges are finding jobs in Manhattan's lucrative test-prep economy.

Seth Perlman/AP

A friend of mine, Catherine Cohen, graduated from Princeton in 2013 and moved to New York City to pursue a career in comedy. She took a job as a tutor to pay the bills.

"I wanted a job that would allow me to be free during the day for auditions and free late at night for rehearsals and performances," Cohen told me.

Cohen is one of what seems like a growing number of highly educated 20-somethings who have started tutoring while pursuing another career. Often this career is something in the arts, like acting or writing. Sometimes, tutors are engaged in a pre-career endeavor, such as applying to graduate school or laying the groundwork to break into a difficult industry. Like waitering and bartending—my 90s stereotype of a wandering youth’s job of choice—being a tutor means part-time work with flexible hours. But for today's top college graduates, it's often easier to get part-time jobs as tutors than it is for them to work entry-level positions in food service or retail.

"I needed a lot of flexibility in my schedule, and tutoring really offered me that in a way no other job could," said Keith Rubin, an actor and friend who got a job tutoring in Manhattan after graduating from Yale in 2012. "I had a bunch of friends who were tutors in New York when I moved here—a lot of Ivy League grads pursuing careers in the arts gravitate towards tutoring for the same reasons I did."

Another reason people like Cohen and Rubin are drawn to tutoring is the high hourly rate, which can start around $50 for an elite company and extend as high as $150 or $200 depending on experience. "A good company will start you off at no lower than 50 an hour," said Clayton Raithel, who graduated from Princeton in 2012 and worked as a tutor while applying to nursing school. "Anything less than that isn’t worth working for." For comparison, the starting salary of a junior financial analyst at Goldman Sachs this year is roughly $85,000 annually, according to the Wall Street Journal. At $50 an hour, a tutor would exceed that by working just 33 hours a week (although it should be noted that tutors start off at around 15 weekly hours).

Being eligible for a job at one of New York's elite tutoring companies means a similarly elite academic pedigree. Although larger companies like Kaplan and the Princeton Review dominate the national tutoring market, Ivy League graduates like Cohen, Rubin, and Raithel often flock to smaller firms that pay more. Peruse the website of any top test-prep company and you'll likely feel like you're reading a sponsored advertisement for the Ivy League: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell (repeat).

"We only deal with top colleges," said Sasha DeWind, the vice president of Tutor Associates, one of the premier tutoring companies in New York. She added prestigious colleges such as Williams and Amherst to the list.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan-based Advantage Testing echoed DeWind's comment, noting that the "vast majority" of the company's tutors have degrees from Ivy League universities and other leading institutions.

It's natural that Ivy League grads would be appealing to companies like Tutor Associates and Advantage. After all, getting into one of the country's top universities means excelling academically in high school and preforming in the highest percentile on standardized tests. It therefore makes logical sense that these graduates would then be able to use their academic skills to teach the next generation of high achievers. However, test-prep companies also place an incredibly high premium on having employees with gold stars on their resumes. Tutors with degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, to name a few, gives their companies credibility with students—and, more importantly, with parents.

"A lot of these big test-prep companies snap up recent grads simply because they see an Ivy League degree and a good SAT score," Rubin said. "These agencies use the pedigree of their tutors as a selling point to potential clients."

As such, today’s tutors aren’t necessarily the stereotypical gray-haired schoolmarms assigned to the goof off who's failing algebra. Instead, the typical tutors at companies like Tutor Associates and Advantage are recent graduates helping already bright students get a leg up in college admissions. With an increasingly competitive college process, having a tutor can often make the difference between getting into that all-important first-choice college or ending up somewhere further down a long list of prospective schools.

With wealthy parents willing to do what it takes to get their kids into college, tutoring companies seem to be springing up to meet the demand. Many of them are in turn hiring armies of recent college graduates who are looking for part-time work and eager to cash in on their own Ivy League educations.

"They're almost always not looking to be a tutor as the end goal," said Alex Mallory, the founder of the New York City-based Competitive Edge, about his tutors. "It's better than being a barista or a bartender because the pay is much better."

Companies like Competitive Edge hire and train tutors, assign them students, and handle logistics and payment. Meanwhile, tutors travel to their students' homes or schools to meet with them at times and places that are most convenient. Since they're interacting with parents, tutors are required to be engaging, attentive and answer questions about students' progress. In that sense, it's a comprehensive industry: two parts education and one part customer service.

"You have to be bright, be a great communicator, and have great people skills. It’s as if you work at the Ritz Carlton,” said Lisa Jacobson, the founder of Inspirica, one of the most prestigious tutoring companies in New York. And, like the Ritz, Inspirica charges top prices for its services: between $225 and $550 an hour, according to Jacobson.

Jacobson told me that when she started Inspirica in 1983, it was one of the only private tutoring companies in New York. Today, Jacobson employs more than 100 tutors in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. "It wasn't until 10 or 15 years ago where everyone knew they could come to New York and be a tutor."
Jacobson attributes the recent boom in the tutoring industry to the creation of the U.S. News and World Report as well as the birth of the Internet, two events that she says made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools. With more applicants, college admissions got more competitive, and parents who were already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on private-school educations looked for other ways to give their children a boost in the application process, she said. Those who could afford it sent their kids to private tutors like Jacobson. Soon, more tutoring companies like Inspirica began popping up to meet the demand.
As the U.S. economy rebounds and the competition to reach the country's elite colleges continues to get fiercer and fiercer, the demand for tutoring companies and the tutors that make them run will likely only continue to grow. And while many of these tutors go on to pursue full-time careers in the arts, become doctors and lawyers, or move on to other jobs in education, some have found a permanent home in the new tutoring economy. Take Competitive Edge's Mallory, who worked as a tutor after graduating from Williams in 2007 and went on to start his own company two years later.
James Mears, a friend who graduated from Princeton in 2011, is following a similar route. When Mears realized he was spending more time tutoring than auditioning, he dropped the acting and entered into the industry permanently. "Tutoring became a full-time job," Mears told me. "Now I'm essentially running my own business."