When you’re a large tutoring company putting an exorbitantly high price point on your services, it behooves you to take a thoughtful approach. A convincing plan of attack can be the thing that sets you apart from all the backpack tutors peddling their college knowledge and homework help for an eighth of your price.

My company prides itself on our detailed plans, timing out the course of each and every student, and tracking their progress to make sure they are following the agenda to a “T.” We try to be as clear and explicit as possible about how often students should be meeting with their tutor, how many sessions before an official test, how many practice tests, how many tutors for which subjects. It’s like a very specific take-home recipe for a very expensive meal, and yet, if the client doesn’t follow directions or somehow makes a huge mess of it, it’s still our fault. We’ve discussed that before, though. What I’ve been thinking about lately is the difference in the ingredients we’re instructing these people to use.

The whole advantage to tutoring on top of classroom learning is that there’s only one student at play, and so instruction is leveled directly at the individual instead of spread thin over the needs of too many students—those who are too far ahead or too far behind falling through the cracks. That’s essentially our whole selling point. Your needs and your needs only. Flexibility. Adaptability. An entire curriculum designed around your needs exclusively. But where does that flexibility go when it comes to price?

At my company, we do not have a sliding scale. Our prices are our prices. Most people who can’t afford us self-select out and steer clear of our price tag. There are others, though, who feel some irresistible pull towards us, even if they clearly can’t afford us. Maybe they’ve heard we’re just the best, and it isn’t even worth looking at other brands. Maybe their family friends at school all come to us, and it would be an outright admission of inferiority or parsimony to go to anyone else. Maybe it’s clear that their son or daughter needs a great deal of help, and they truly believe that only the best will do. Maybe they’re afraid, and need to feel in control of the situation. Maybe sometimes the best way to feel in control is to feel as though you’re sacrificing something.

There are plenty of reasons people try to buy something they can’t afford. Some are good and some are bad. But here’s the tricky part of buying in to an incremental service that you can’t properly afford: it’s not worth your money. That is, in most cases, it’s not worth the money you spend on it.

Think about it: students A and B need the same amount of tutoring. They both want the best score possible, so they both go to the company with the best reputation and highest prices. Student A’s family has 5,000 dollars to spend, whereas student B’s family has 1,000. The highly reputable company says that both students need to see a tutor at least 20 times before taking their test. Student A can afford it, no problem. Student B can only afford a small fraction of that. The highly reputable company doesn’t lower its prices for Student B, nor does it turn this student away, because the highly reputable company doesn’t sell pre-packaged programs—it tailors to individual needs. And so the highly reputable tutoring company simply tells student B, “Okay, we’ll plan to do about a third of the amount of remedial help you actually need, because that’s what you can afford.” That family then goes on to spend the same amount of money or more than they would with another company, and receive about half the amount of tutoring. Maybe less.

And to be fair, sometimes it works. We’re not peddling snake oil; we’re good at the game, and sometimes these families get exactly the results they want on far less tutoring than anyone thought the student needed. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. And who do you blame, then? We always make a point of saying that student B needs this or that amount of tutoring, but you can only afford 40% of that, so that’s what you’re getting. We don’t mince words about that. They buy it anyway. We sell it anyway.

I’ve already discussed (at length) the stratification among those who can afford tutoring and those who cannot. But what about the stratification among our clients? I have colleagues who Google clients before a first meeting with them to check if they own a major sports team or a triple dollar sign law firm, in order to gauge how aggressive they can be about course-planning; in order to gauge what the client really can spend versus when they’re just trying to be coy. If asked about this, they’ll respond that it’s in order to see how much of a fight it’s going to be to get a student the tutoring he or she needs. But, don’t think we’re not all aware of our revenue data. Don’t think I wouldn’t be scolded by the powers-that-be for assigning one of our cheaper tutors to the daughter of the owner of the Atlanta Braves, or the host of the local morning news show. Don’t think that we’re advised to turn away a family that can only afford three meetings with a tutor.

One does wonder if we’re not talking out of both sides of our mouths.