SAT Prep Aims To Level the Field

Founded by two Harvard alumni, the newly-formed Ivy Key SAT preparation company may seem a bit exclusive at first glance.

After all, its stated hiring policy is to “only select tutors who have either graduated from or are currently attending an Ivy League school or institution of equal quality.”

But founders Chris L. McConnell ’08 and Jae R. Gardner ’07 were determined to assist students lacking financial and academic resources when they created the company in January of 2009. The company has a for-profit private tutoring program that funds their philanthropic endeavor, Climbing Ivy, dedicated to serving low-income students.

With a commitment to education, community and social entrepreneurship, the Harvard graduates formed their business despite skepticism about offering anything for free during a recession.

“With the economic downturn, what better time than now to impact the community in a positive way,” Gardner said.

McConnell and Gardner are equally emphatic in their perception of business and education as working hand-in-hand. “Social entrepreneurship is huge,” said McConnell, who added that running a business in conjunction with non-profit tutoring is “a natural fit.”

Mark Greenstein, founder and director of an entirely for-profit SAT preparation program, Ivy Bound, is less optimistic about the sustainability of programs like Climbing Ivy. Though Ivy Bound has an outreach program in low-income areas, local schools cover the cost for these programs. “More power to them,” said Greenstein of Ivy Key, “but no one can just donate their time.”

Harvard Sociology lecturer David L. Ager has more hope for entrepreneurial efforts to help students of low socioeconomic status achieve equal opportunities.

“It really is exciting to see more and more students involved in the macro-social phenomenon of putting their intellect toward helping the community,” he said, adding that proper funding and a sound business model created in clever and innovative ways would allow such a program to be sustainable.

McConnell and Gardner are confident in Climbing Ivy’s ability to survive. “At the end of the day, education is the heart of the business,” said Gardner, continuing that “education should be a right, not a privilege. If you just can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be pushed to the end of the line.”

Arun A. Alagappan, director of the test preparation program Advantage Testing Foundation, applauds Climbing Ivy’s mission to provide confidence and future opportunities for its students.

“Long-term test prep is in the interest of society as a whole,” he said. “It’s important to bring talent from every sector to the leadership pool of the whole country.”

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