People act like we lied about the cost. Like we told them it would be cheaper, or take less time, or had never mentioned price at all. They act like we snuck up on them, like they caught us in some kind of old-timey highwayman’s ruse, like we were trying to con them out of their own best interests. The fact is that the tutoring we offer is expensive; no one lies about that. At worst we speak about it euphemistically: an investment, a commitment, a huge value, but we never ever call it cheap. We never call it a bargain. We might be biased, but we’re hardly duplicitous.
That doesn’t stop the outrage.
The ones I truly don’t get are the ones who jump to moral outrage in the inquiry phase. These are the folks who call us or email or approach an administrator or a tutor with their initial questions; how can you help me, how good are you, what does it cost? I’ve reduced my speech about our prices down to a finite script. There is a built-in pause just after I declare the dollar amount. The pause is brief, but just large enough for me to assess a look on someone’s face, a sharp exhale of breath, or the click of a receiver if we are speaking on the phone. This pause is the instant I have to ascertain if someone is game for our price tag, if they can absorb our cost without sweating it, or if they clearly had no idea that we are the Maserati of private tutoring. Sometimes people swear. Sometimes they tell me outright that they simply can’t afford our services. Those are all fine reactions. What gets me are the clients who respond with clean, unmitigated anger. “How can you justify that?” they ask, eyebrows and voices raised. “What makes you think you can charge that amount when your competitors are half your price?”
It’s as though they assume that the person they’re talking to—namely me—is the one responsible for the company’s overall fiscal policies, or else that I’ve invented a sum on the spot in order to exclude them personally. They react as though I’m throwing a big party and have come to let them know that their son or daughter is not invited because of brutal playground politics. I tell them that we justify our prices based on our results. I say that we charge what we do in order to ensure the infrastructure and the excellent services that we offer. I tell them our prices do indeed reflect our results. All of which, to be fair, is pretty much true. What I think but don’t say is that we “dare” charge what we do because a critical mass of people are willing to pay that much. As someone who thinks capitalism is on the whole pretty icky, it makes a definite amount of sense to me that if what we’re offering is essentially a luxury service, we would charge as much as people are willing to pay. If what we’re offering isn’t food or water or medicine or a foundational education (which, don’t get me started), as long as it’s a sidecar, an add-on, an optional addition to those necessities, why shouldn’t we charge what people will pay, so long as they’re happy with the results?
And then I cringe, listening to my own thoughts.
I honestly don’t know whose outrage is more objectionable, theirs or my own. Is it reasonable for someone to react with anger that we’ve put whatever price tag we have on our non-essential service; one that is offered at a lower price by a number of other accessible vendors? Is it any more reasonable for some of our clients to pay more in a month for tutoring than I do for my apartment? One way to think about it is who walks into the Ritz and demands to know why they charge more than the Super 8? But then again, who charges $3,000 for one night in a hotel? (A: people who can.)
Complaints trickle on down the line from there. Seeing as we really do try our best to be clear about our prices from the outset (given, again, that this tutoring is pricier than my rent, I feel it pretty important to be transparent with clients about it) the majority of the families we work with know what to expect and are poised to handle it without comment. They look forward to our results, they receive them, they’re happy. But somehow I continue to be caught off guard by those who act as though our prices come as a surprise, or else are a personal affront. Weeks or months into tutoring we’ll get a call from an outraged Mom or Dad—“Do you know how much I’ve spent on your services?” they ask. “Thousands,” they say, as though to impress or surprise me. Sometimes they’re unhappy with our results, sometimes they want things to be moving faster than they are, but sometimes they’re just suddenly outraged with the idea of having to pay… our prices. And part of me wants to ask them why they came to us in the first place. And part of me wants to shrug and say, it is a little exorbitant, isn’t it? And then I spiral into my own head, staging entire debates with myself trying to vilify and justify our prices. And I always arrive at the same question:
Is education something that should be at the whim of the free market? And what elements of an education can be considered “extras?”