Last Updated: Apr 6, 2020
I should be up front: there’s not really a good answer to this question. The truth is definitely more complex than what I’m going to talk about here. That is, SAT prep is expensive largely because people are willing to pay as much as they are, so then the question becomes, “Why are people spending so much?” That gets into the arena of economics, and I’m not an economist, so I won’t pretend to be.
And of course, I should qualify the question to begin with, because it’s not really relevant to some forms of prep. Private tutors are are particularly expensive because hey, it’s tutoring. It’s always pricey to get a single person to sit down with you and teach you individually, especially considering the preparation, travel, and other time that the tutor spends on you outside of lesson. Test preparation isn’t special there—and keep in mind that the tutor has to have a pretty rare skill set if they scored very well on the test when they took it.
Online SAT prep, meanwhile, is not always expensive at all, so the question is kind of irrelevant. You can get top-tier lessons and practice material for a fraction of the cost of a tutor or classroom. And SAT books are, of course, plenty cheap.
What I want to talk about is classroom courses. Specifically, classroom courses that are arranged by major test-prep companies. In those situations, the prices can seem a bit . . . exaggerated. Let’s say it’s $700 for a class, and there are 20 students who sign up. That’s a total of $14,000 dollars for what might total about 40 hours of class time. That’s $350 per hour. How much is that teacher getting paid, anyway? I won’t name names, but the starting teacher's wage for at least one big company is $20 per hour. Something is missing, right? $330 per hour, specifically.
You have to consider the teacher, the material, and the rented room—all the visible things you associate with the class itself—as just the tip of the iceberg. Behind that might be an enormous company with layers upon layers of people (teacher managers, class coordinators, teacher trainers, hiring managers, I.T. workers, practice material writers . . . ) and expenses (material distribution, advertising, office rent. . . ). It really just goes on and on. If any part of that system isn’t set up to be as efficient as possible, the cost of running it starts to trickle down into the price of the classes. And the bigger the company, the harder it is to keep everything under control.
So, in other words, if you pay $700 for a class, most of that money isn’t actually paying for the thing you get: the lessons themselves. Most of it just helps keep the giant machine behind the lessons running. This is almost always true—only so much of the price you pay for an $8 hamburger actually pays for the food itself—but it can be especially noticeable with private classroom courses. Luckily, if you think it’s a bit absurd, there are other options out there. There are many ways to prep.