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The Rapid Rise of Private Tutoring

In his research, doctoral candidate Edward Kim examines the rarely studied phenomenon of private tutoring and how it can contribute to issues of inequality in education.
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Having attended private tutoring centers as a child and worked at them throughout high school and college, Ph.D. candidate Edward Kim was surprised that such an integral part of his own upbringing had not been heavily studied. He entered HGSE’s Ph.D. Program intending to learn more about private tutoring, an industry that has steadily grown over the last 20 years with the number of private tutoring centers more than tripling.

During the pandemic the industry saw a boom, with 1 in 5 upper-income families hiring someone to aid with their child’s education. Policymakers also began to worry about the implications of “learning pods” — small groups of students taught by a private educator — on existing inequities in education. Even pre-pandemic, research around college entrance exams suggested that performance on these tests was more of a factor of income and the ability of families to provide appropriate resources and supports like private tutoring than a student’s ability.

But how does the demand for private tutoring, like test preparation, actually impact inequality?

A recent paper coauthored by Kim, Professor Martin West, and Boston University professor Joshua Goodman explores that question, as well as the ways in which culture and capital intersect in the education sector in the United States. The study’s findings suggest that the location of private tutoring centers tend to be concentrated in areas with high income, high levels of parental education, and in areas with many immigrant and Asian-American families. 

Here, Kim talks through some of those findings, the potential equity implications of private tutoring, and why we might want to consider lowering the stakes in education.

Eddie Kim

We found that being Asian and being foreign born in the United States was a big predictor of whether or not you were more likely to have a private tutoring business in your neighborhood. There’s an article [from Sriprakash, Proctor, and Hu, 2016] that looks at Chinese nationals in Australia and tries to explain why certain communities have different attitudes toward private tutoring, and I think it’s applicable in this context. The authors said on one hand, you can see tutoring as a cultural response, you know, Asian families are more familiar with it because it's more common in the country they come from. But another way of reading this response is that enrolling in private tutoring is a way for a community that has low cultural capital, but high economic capital, to respond to a system that ostensibly rewards exam performance but does not prepare students for those exams.

From that perspective, what would you do? It’s a very logical step. You train for the test. And I think that translates not just to Asian communities in the United States, but also upper income elite circles in the United States.

You also found a lot of private tutoring centers are located in areas with high-income families. What’s the incentive for families who seemingly already have high social and cultural capital to invest in tutoring, especially if they’re already in a neighborhood with a “good” public school?
A clean way to explain this seeming contradiction is to understand that private tutoring demand comes from not whether a school is “good” or “bad,” but from the perception of whether a school is “good” or “bad.” You could imagine that high status families who are aiming for hyper-elite, hyper-competitive colleges look at their fantastic public school and feel that’s still not good enough to give their child an edge, especially if they imagine they’re competing with the other children from that same school, who are receiving that same fantastic schooling.

So, in some ways, does it seem like the education system perpetuates this kind of competition?
That’s still conjecture for the United States because we haven’t proven it in the United States specifically, but researchers in other contexts have drawn this link: In societies that highly reward education or feature high competition for educational resources — think of spots at elite college or jobs — there’s a greater preponderance of private tutoring. Families have such an incentive to enroll in private tutoring services, which offer to translate their money into educational outcomes for their children, when education is a golden ticket. Their children are going to go on and be high income, high social capital, high cultural capital, because they have, through their education, earned the right to be in that space.

How does school choice relate to tutoring?
That’s actually a bit of a conundrum. With the study we’re talking about now, the most we could say was we expected school choice in some shape or form to be correlated to private tutoring after controlling for everything else. Other countries in the world have found when school choice goes up, private tutoring goes down. It relates to the idea that tutoring demand is a function of satisfaction with your school — if school choice goes up, families tend to be more satisfied and thus enroll less in private tutoring.

But interestingly, we didn’t find that school choice availability or private school enrollment was good at predicting whether private tutoring centers would be there or not. If anything, our data says that if choice goes up, private tutoring goes up, too. I follow up on this study with another paper that directly asks whether charter school appearances cause private tutoring prevalence to go up or down, and again I find, this time much more definitively, that it does in fact go up, in contrast to what the studies from other countries reported. As for why this would be the case, we don’t have a great reason. There’s just not enough research on private tutoring in the United States for us to pin down a definitive explanation.

Any theories?
One theory is that charter schools are competing with private schools. So, a family sends their children to a charter school, thinking it’s not as good as the private school they were considering, but it’s free, so maybe they package that with private tutoring. In other words, families that would have gone to private school are bundling private tutoring with other options. As for the perception that students in private school seem to be engaging in more private tutoring than other students, I would chalk that up to the fact that students in private school tend to be high income, their parents tend to be highly educated and involved in their education, and that’s what’s driving interest in private tutoring, not the fact that they attend a private school.

What might we need to consider or know when it comes to private tutoring and inequality? Is there a conclusive link between the two yet?
To be extra principled, I’ll start by saying that we don’t know for a fact that private tutoring is causing more inequality in the United States. But given how effective high-dosage, high-touch tutoring can be as a pedagogical technique, and the data we now have on where these businesses are booming, I’d suggest we at least be concerned.

I also want to stress that there’s not necessarily a malicious actor here. We, as a society, want to give bigger rewards to higher achieving students. Families want to secure good lives for their children. Tutors want to charge for their services. That’s all you really need to get the cycle going. Families look at the state of inequality in the United States and rightly start to stress about their kids’ chances of success.

What can we do to change this?
One idea I keep coming back to is to lower the stakes of education, though that’s much easier said than done. There’s only so much the education system can do to change how society will use it. Getting everyone a college diploma won’t change the number of CEO positions available, or the minimum wage.

In the meantime, we need more research. I know it’s cliché for a researcher to call for more research, but it’s so true in this case. What we’ve done here in this paper is just confirm that the phenomenon exists and give some clues about where it exists. Next is documenting precisely how the industry operates, and then disentangling the effect of teachers and education policy from afterschool tutoring on a school’s performance.


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