Image credit: theinertia.com

Why Australians get tutored more than Americans do — do we just care more about education?

How does the following image make you feel?

Excitement?? Racing to find a solution?

Boredom?? Already done it in your head?

Lucky. For many people the image conjures panic and sweaty palms. I know this well. As a tutor I stared into hundreds of these panicked faces. For over a decade I helped school and university students overcome their struggles.

Over the last 2 years while studying in the US I have been working on my startup adapptED, an online platform that provides the effectiveness of a personal tutor at the scale and cost of software. In Australia, private tutoring is a well established concept, at least in the major cities. So naturally when building adapptED in Boston I thought that there would be an opportunity to position adapptED as a low cost tutoring alternative for parents/students who couldn’t afford traditional private help.

However to my surprise, outside of test prep such as for the SAT and GMAT/GRE/LSAT tutoring wasn’t a frequent occurrence. It was a rare 8th grader who was getting private maths (or math as they would say) support.

This intrigued me, and so I tried to find out. I had conversations with classmates about their experiences. I questioned current parents about their desires. And I made good friends with Google.

Here’s what I found.

Private (and academically selective) vs Public split

In the US, less than 10% of elementary and secondary students attend private schools, while in Australia 35% of students attend non-government schools. Further, there are a set of top quality academically selective public schools; in fact in the state of NSW, the top 5 high schools (7–12) by state exam performance were all selective government schools. The best performing non-selective government school came in at #55.

There is a material difference in terms of academic graduate outcomes between being in a public school and in a private/selective school. Getting into a selective school depends on standardised test performance but with limited spaces only about 1 in 3 get in.

Attending a private school is more complex. Those with the financial means to pay also often need to put their child’s name on a waiting list at birth. But for parents who can’t afford it not all is lost. Most private schools offer academic scholarships to gifted students. Entrance exams are like those for selective schools but differ slightly school to school.

The above dynamic fuels demand for test prep and tutoring during Years 5 and 6 for Year 7 admissions. Once introduced to enrichment, parents often continue to pay throughout high school.

University/college admissions

The second big difference was the structure of higher education. In Australia there are a small number of high quality publicly funded universities. Entrance (outside a few programs such as medicine) was determined by clear entrance score called ATAR. In 2009 the Australian Government introduced a new national score called the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) that represents a student’s ranking from 0 to 99.95. The score is not determined by a single standardised test but rather the outcomes of a student’s performance for an entire year and across all subjects they elect to take. This performance is normalized to account for course and school difficulty. Universities publish clear requirements about the ATAR scores required to matriculate into each course. There are no essays or interviews.

In contrast the top US colleges are generally private — in fact the top ranking public university in US News’s ranking of National Universities in 2016 was UC Berkeley, tied for 20th spot. Attending these institutions means forking out for the huge tuition bills; Princeton University $45k, Harvard University $47k, and University of Chicago $52k. Even going to a public university is no guarantee of affordable tuition unless you live in the state; $14k for in-state tuition vs $40k for out-of-state. Much more expensive than Australia. On top of that, colleges use a variety of factors to get in including SAT/ACT scores, school transcripts, teacher reports, and essays. This dilution of entrance criteria means reduces demand for academic tutoring.

Who job is it anyway?

The final factor I identified was a cultural difference in perceptions about who owned the responsibility for delivering education. In Australia many parents see it as their responsibility to ensure their children get a high quality education. Perhaps this is influenced by high levels of immigration from Asian countries, places where education is highly valued as a way to climb social classes. In the US the general sentiment I heard was that it was the government’s job to handle a child’s primary and secondary education — “I pay my taxes, this is your problem”.

Putting it together

The combination of these factors drives a difference in demand for education support services like tutoring. In Australia, because the highest quality courses are affordable AND it is very clear how to get in, the is a lot of demand for tutoring and support services. And not just for the final years, but throughout middle and high school. In contrast, in the US because college is so expensive and there are many different factors to optimise, there is far less demand for these services, both from parents and students.

So what do you think? Does this resonate or jar with your experiences. Love to hear your thoughts.

Do you, your child or someone you know need maths help? At Sandbox Learning Australia we use the science of learning to deliver maths coaching that is both personalised and effective.

If you are in Sydney please contact us to arrange a free baseline assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.