We've Got a Tutor for That

A new business venture connects students with private tutors, adding another layer of academic support for colleges that can't always meet demand.

November 1, 2012

A calculus student needs last-minute tutoring. The academic support office is closed, and even if it were open, it might not have anyone equipped or available to help with her upper-level course. The tutoring ads on Craigslist seem sketchy, and she’s had bad experiences with the people who post signs around campus advertising their services.

What to do?

Tutor Matching Service would have her log on to its Facebook application, select a tutor fit for her needs, and meet up as soon as that very night. CEO Ethan Fieldman created the business about a year and a half ago, after his own work in tutoring convinced him there was a need for a safe, effective way for students to find tutors to whom they may not have access through their college.

“We’re doing what the university needs to fill in the cracks of tutoring,” Fieldman said. “It’s really something we believe every university should have, just to sort of clean up the private tutoring model.”

The company is working with 15 two- and four-year colleges now, including Purdue University, Santa Fe College and the California Institute of Technology, and hasn’t had its formal launch yet. Colleges that use it pay a $250 annual fee, then link to the service on the institution’s website. The tutors, most of whom are students at the participating colleges, get a special badge on the website if they have been certified by the university to indicate they know what they’re doing.

One in four tutors don’t charge anything – they’re just looking for the experience. But those that do charge don’t get paid (via a PayPal account managed by Tutor Matching Service) until 48 hours after the session, to make sure everything is legit. All the tutors work under a 100-percent money-back guarantee.

“The cream rises to the top,” Fieldman said. “Almost all the tutors get very, very high ratings, and people wonder why. The answer is, if you’re not that good of a tutor you’re probably not going to jump through the hoops” of signing up, agreeing to the guarantee, and getting certified.

For now, it’s basically plain old tutor shopping. But ultimately, after some significant data-gathering Fieldman hopes to turn it into something more sophisticated: a system that can suggest best-fit tutors for students based on their subject, location, cash on hand, certification, availability, rating (from other tutees), and so on. They could even recommend tutors based on teaching, learning and communication styles.

And universities will be able to put that data to use, too, for example if there’s high demand for biochem help and that points to a need for better in-house assistance on the subject.

The company has been helpful for students and made things easier for staff at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Landon Brothers, assistant director of the Office of Tutorial Support.

In the past, IUPUI students who wanted individualized help beyond what the campus academic mentors or resource centers for math, writing and other subjects had to offer relied on Brothers’s office to find a tutor and set up a mutually agreeable time and location for the session. That took time, and meant that students couldn’t always get what they needed in the time frame they wanted.

And it sometimes led to an entire recruiting process: Brothers calling up instructors to ask if they could suggest a student to tutor for an upper-level course that his office didn’t cover.

Obviously, the students were already on Facebook, Brothers said. This way, they can find a tutor, 24 hours a day, and it doesn’t matter whether the tutorial support office is open or not.

Despite initial quality concerns, IUPUI signed on, and students like the system, he said. The office only refers students to IUPUI-certified tutors (about 50 in all), many of whom don’t charge because they’re looking for experience more than anything else.

And in fact, it could even improve the quality of tutoring students there are getting. Before, IUPUI would survey students about their experience with the university-matched tutors but would often get no response. With Tutor Matching Service, the tutee has to give feedback and rate the tutor.

“This has kind of taken the place of something like [drop-in tutoring]. This is more or less the peer tutoring that we have that’s secondary to all the other tutoring happening,” Brothers said. “It does get expensive for universities to have tutors that are drop-in tutors. I mean, it’s great on the side of the student to know that, ‘Hey, I can go to this location during these times and I know a tutor will be there.’ "

But when a tutor is sitting there for three or four hours and not a single student shows up for help, that’s money down the drain.


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