Buying Your Way to the Top: A Cadillac Education

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,

The sheltered industrial position of the leisure class should give free play to the cognitive interest in members of this class, and we should consequently have, as many writers confidently find that we do have, a very large proportion of scholars, scientists, savants derived from this class and deriving their incentive to scientific investigation and speculation from the discipline of a life of leisure.

As the industrial revolution and later the G.I. Bill opened up American educational opportunities, the wealthy sought new avenues to differentiate themselves and their class. In the process, it seems the upper-crust idea of education shifted from finishing school to luxury product: Exeter, Dalton, and Harvard are brands with as much weight and meaning as Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and Coach. They correlate to nuanced but real traits and stereotypes and serve as markers of success and class. That conspicuous consumption wins out over a classical education would certainly not surprise Veblen, who first theorized that competition among the wealthy drives spending habits.

In the 2006 Dissent article “Debt Education,” Jeffrey J. Williams dissected the changes in Americans’ conception of the purpose of higher education, and how this conception is mediated by increasing tuition costs funded largely through student loans. In the postwar era, the popular rationale for higher education was that it was a “social good”; it produced “engineers, scientists, and even humanists who would strengthen the country.” Education was cheap, and thus was seen as a chance to explore, to reflect, and to think. Today’s higher prices mean that the vast majority of Americans perceive higher ed as an expensive yet necessary “private service” rather than a social good or a time for philosophical reflection. Hence, we get more business majors and fewer humanities majors across all classes. Nearly everyone now sees education as a commodity, but working folks can’t buy their way to the top with tutors and test prep.

Is there a way to reform the system? Most progressives would prefer to see everyone afforded the same quality of education as the rich, even if does remain a commodified good. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provides for federal money to be allocated for “closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.” Some federal grant monies are doled out to tutors and agencies under the auspices of inner-city private and charter schools, so that even underprivileged students can improve their academic performance through tutoring. For a progressive piece of policy, Title I’s provisions are a good start, though they do not seem to be well known or well utilized.

One easy reform would be to tax those so-called Cadillac private school tuitions and use this income to pay for improved education for the public. This idea is borrowed from one of the provisions of Obamacare, which gets some of its funding through taxation of the opulent health insurance plans of the hyper-rich. That idea could strike a chord with the public at large.

A more radical change, of course, would be to ban private schools. The idea received mainstream attention last fall when Gawker published an article on the topic. In a forceful screed, John Cook argues that

[f]rom a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America’s wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake. Wealthy people tend to lobby effectively for their interests, and if their interests were to include adequate public funding for the schools their children attend, and libraries, and air-conditioning, those goals could likely be achieved without having to resort to unpleasant things like teachers’ strikes.

The gap between the privileged and the underprivileged only widens as austerity measures continue their slow assault on public schools. What is normal for public education is changing: forty- and even fifty-student classrooms, the end of air conditioning in summer months, and advertisements on school buses are new and dangerous precedents. At the same time, the well-ensconced private schools and tutoring agencies are more flush with cash than ever. As these disparities become more gaping, people may eventually demand changes in educational policy.

If the 1 percent and their private school tuitions were taxed properly, making my job obsolete and stemming the glut of money going to the tutoring arms race, this tax money would provide for more teachers, counselors, books, and schools for the public. I am sure that many of my co-workers would rather work in this kind of society, as equal-opportunity educators, than as tutors for a privileged few.