Buying Your Way to the Top: A Cadillac Education

The idea that the privileged can “buy their way into college” has long been a cinematic cliché. While everyone seems to understand intuitively that the rich have an easier time getting into college than the poor, buying your way into Yale is not as simple as television makes us think, where a seven-figure check for a new business school or a phone call from a Senator is the preferred means of admission. In the real world, the most realistic means of guaranteeing your child’s entry into the educational (and economic) 1 percent is to throw money at private tutors and test prep throughout most of their childhood.

Since graduating from college, I have had several jobs at elite private schools and tutoring agencies, giving me a window into an industry in which education is assumed to be a commodity. Reared in public schools, I never thought I would be employed in the world of private tutoring, nor was it a place I even knew existed. I grew up in a firmly middle-class suburb in southern Arizona, where education was seen as a means to success, but not something to stress over. I am frequently astounded at the competitive pressure experienced by some of my agency’s students, who forgo summer vacations in favor of intensive test prep. Tutoring agencies were a non-presence in my hometown, in stark contrast to a place like Manhattan, where flyers for private tutors are ubiquitous on the tonier blocks.

At the high-end New York tutoring company where I work, I am trained in the art of interacting with the bourgeoisie: in one exercise, the new tutors and I receive a lesson in how to talk to the “Wall Street Dad” archetype. “I want you to understand that my child has to get into Princeton or Yale, maybe Stanford,” the actor barks at me. Wall Street Dad asks where I went to college and what I studied. “Physics at Oberlin?” he scoffs. “Bad school, though I guess your major’s not totally worthless. But I want my son to study physics at a real school like Princeton.” Later, our trainers will swear that all the interactions are based directly on interactions with real parents.

Indeed, Wall Street Dad’s hyper-competitive attitude toward education is common among my agency’s clients. Parents rush to put their kids’ names on the waitlist for elite pre-schools as early as birth. The education game’s “scores” are tabulated in two ways: via acceptance to private, prestigious schools at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary level; and through grades and test scores. Because of the intense focus on scores and acceptances, education at this echelon has no inherent enlightening function. Rather, it is reduced to a perverse arms race, where children receive training—in the form of paid tutelage—in an attempt to get ahead.

This fits with our clients’ conceptions of the tutor’s role. We are more akin to service industry workers than teachers, who are viewed as having a deeper, more moralistic mission. Consequently, most tutors are the epitome of contingent laborers. Most of us work without benefits, are not paid for prep or travel, and have careers that are subject to the whims of the market. Tutor assignments are made by the agency based solely on parents’ requests, without deference to employees’ survival; we are expected to adapt to cancellations, for which we usually get no pay. Likewise, hours vary wildly depending on the season; at my agency, some in-demand tutors from elite schools work twenty-five hours a week, while others teaching the same subject can get five or fewer. In the winter and summer, the workload drops to nearly zero. Perhaps most alarmingly, parents are billed upward of $150 per hour for our time; if we are lucky, we get 25 percent of that.

Fitting with the service-industry conception of education, tutors don’t teach students to be ethical or think critically but rather provide a “product” in the form of improved grades and scores, which ultimately translates to “value”—socially and later monetarily, when the student enters the job market. The tutor’s pedagogy differs from the schoolteacher’s, too: we are encouraged to simplify content, minimize details, and make education into a game with tangible rewards. In general, there is little room for critical thinking or deep engagement with the material.

This is not to say the tutors are not the kind of liberal, creative professionals you would expect to see working in education. The product the tutoring agency sells, however, is not progressive in the least. Indeed, we are only furthering structural inequality by providing the wealthy with the educational equivalent of “Cadillac” health insurance plans. Likewise, we encourage a reductive and simplified view of education, which is reinforced by the views of their parents, many of whom work in competitive, “results-driven” (and quantitative) industries like finance and business.

When you reduce education to an abstract game, students respond accordingly. Most seem acutely aware of what the private school admissions, the test prep, the after-school sports programs, and the constant pressure are all about, and see it all as some kind of Byzantine joke. Many respond to this pressure with languor; frequently we tutors act more as coaches than educators, trying to distract students from their electronic gadgets for long enough to earn them an A. The students take school just seriously enough to get by without thinking too hard. Most students seem similarly aware that their parents will always be there to bail them out. For these children of ultra-privilege, there is no educational goal that cannot be reached through money. At my agency, many parents use our services for years, even decades; at $150 per hour, this amounts to five or six figures over one child’s secondary school career.

It’s actually somewhat unexpected for the privileged to view education as a mere commodity. Education has long been an important means for those at the top to pass on their values and extend class privilege. Finishing schools, which provided etiquette lessons to young women, were perhaps the most obvious example. The values transmitted by an aristocratic, classics-oriented education had at least some positive social repercussions: in learning the classics, many children of wealth became patrons of the creative arts, and of artists and intellectuals themselves. This makes sense, given that the rich had the most leisure time to pursue these endeavors; as Thorstein Veblen commented in his 1899 tract The Theory of the Leisure Class,

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