September 29th, 2010 | Sports

Yalies discover the sales side of test prep

When Deepa Chari ’12 took a job tutoring for Ivy Insiders this summer, she anticipated developing teaching skills as she worked to boost high school students’ test scores. But succeeding at the job, Chari quickly learned, hinged on much more than tutoring abilities.

Ivy Insiders, a franchise that offers standardized test preparation and application consulting to high schoolers, employs undergraduates and graduates from the Ancient Eight and other top colleges. Instructors like Chari — better known as “branch managers” — run classroom courses and tutoring programs.

But while high schoolers and their parents see the Ivy Leaguers as instructors for classes worth several hundred dollars, the college students have more to worry about. Much of their time is spent as salespeople, interviews with eight Ivy Insiders branch managers showed. Charged with recruiting their own students, renting classroom spaces, and marketing the Ivy Insiders program, branch managers are both teachers and businesspeople.

“It’s very much an entrepreneurial program — it’s not your typical internship,” Ivy Insiders CEO Nicholas Green said Tuesday. “Never not once at any point in the recruiting process do we tell these undergraduates they will be hired for a purely teaching position… If we were pitching it as a teaching position, I can guarantee that 50 percent of our branch managers wouldn’t be interested.”

THE PREMISE

Founded on the premise that college students who scored highly on standardized tests are best equipped to teach high school students how to beat these exams, Ivy Insiders markets itself to prospective branch managers as a “Summer Management Program.” Indeed, the employment page on the Ivy Insiders website lists “Learn how to run your own business” as the first step for becoming involved with the program, with the teaching component numbered second.

Julia Fisher ’13, a branch manager in Washington, D.C., said she decided to work for Ivy Insiders primarily because she was interested in tutoring students, but she soon learned that management work was a larger component than she had initially expected.

“I wasn’t excited about that part,” Fisher said of the recruiting work required of branch managers. “But I figured I’d suck it up and do it anyway.”

Five branch managers interviewed said the largest part of their job was recruiting students. Christine Chen ’12 said she felt overburdened with the task of recruiting students and had disagreements with the organization’s management, and as a result she quit the job in June.

Under the direction of their regional managers, branch managers issue course discounts, conduct free trial classes and place advertisements in local newspapers. They also call high school students — typically from their own high schools — and send out mailings to high school administrators and students.

Green, who began Ivy Insiders in 2003 as an education start-up based in Cambridge, Mass., while attending Harvard University, said the curriculum taught by branch managers consists of 18 hours of lectures. Branch managers from Yale attend an eight-hour day of “branch manager boot camp” (held in New Haven at the Omni Hotel) that familiarizes them with the business side of the program, Green said. Branch managers later receive a full day of teacher training, but as these sessions are only held in select cities rather than on college campuses, online instructional video “webinars” corresponding to each classroom lecture are also available for Ivy students to view as an alternative.

A full-price class with Ivy Insiders costs $600, but Green said branch managers are given authority to price-discriminate based on the relative affluence of an area. The average high school student paid $450 for the course this summer, thanks to discounts given by branch managers, as 85 percent of high school students received a discount or scholarship, Green said.

ENOUGH PREP FOR TEST PREP?

For a student like Sophia Gilman ’13, a branch manager in northern California, the management experience of Ivy Insiders was a major draw. She said a summer course on business would cost her $8,000, but instead she was able to get sales and marketing experience while making thousands of dollars. The experience taught her both how to become a better teacher and a better businesswoman, Gilman said.

“It was a lot of learning on the fly, which was one of my favorite parts about it,” she said.

Still, Chari and three of seven other branch managers interviewed said they had concerns about the effectiveness of their initial training sessions. A first-time branch manager in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, Chari described her summer with Ivy Insiders as the chance to start a grassroots company branch in her hometown. While Chari said the post “looks really good on a college résumé,” she added that the brief teacher training was not necessarily adequate preparation for instructing a class of high school students.

“The teacher training really doesn’t come until later, and in my opinion, it’s kind of haphazard,” Chari said. “For somebody who’s really not great shakes at teaching, they will probably not learn to be better.”

Beyond training, all Ivy Insiders teachers are equipped with a separate curriculum developed by the company, which received positive to mixed reviews from branch managers interviewed. Michael Fraade ’13, a branch manager from Weston, Conn., said the curriculum did a good job laying out the test, but he found some explanations to sample questions unhelpful.

GETTING RESULTS, GETTING PAID

Aside from business and teaching experience, Ivy Insiders is a paying summer job. Green said branch managers take home, on average, 33 percent of their total revenue. The average revenue brought in by 351 branch managers nationwide this summer was $7,325 while the average profit was $2,526, Green said, adding that this summer was the lowest revenue and profit summer for branch managers on record. Ivy Insiders ran a profit of 10 percent of its revenue in 2009.

Green attributed the drop in average revenue and profit to increased competition from test preparation companies Kaplan and Princeton Review, along with a tough economic climate. Joanna Cornell ’12, who worked as a branch manager in her suburban Maryland hometown, said she found herself competing for students against other Ivy Insiders tutors.

Among 20 Yale branch managers, the average revenue in 2010 was slightly higher: about $10,800, Green said.

Branch manager Gilman said the benefits of working with an established company like Ivy Insiders outweighed the the 60 percent cut of revenue taken for corporate expenses. Gilman said her summer profits totaled around $5,500 — more than she expected to make. The experience was so positive, Gilman said, that she has already applied to work as a regional manager at Ivy Insiders next summer.

But three branch managers said they were disappointed with their final paycheck at the end of the summer. Cornell, for one, said she went into the summer aiming to make around $5,000. At the end of the summer, when she found she had only tutored enough students to make the minimum profit of $750, Cornell said it was a “huge disappointment.”

Still, according to a 2010 internal survey, only 9.4 percent of branch managers pursued the position primarily for the money. Green said the company works hard to ensure that branch managers have positive experiences, but acknowledged that the time-consuming post can leave some dissatisfied.

“I think invariably when you have a position that requires a lot of hard work, there are going to be people that feel like it’s too much or that it’s not worth it,” Green said. “There is some risk in this position, since [branch managers] share in the profit of the business.”

As for program efficacy, Ivy Insiders undoubtedly gets results. The average SAT score improvement from first to last practice test seen by this summer’s 4,787 participants was 228 points, Green said, down from an average 270 points improvement in the past four years. The average improvement margin in classes taught by Yale students was 34 points less than the average score improvement among Ivy Insiders tutors this summer.