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Horatio Alger, With Chutzpah

LSAT, GMAT, MCAT: Stanley Kaplan Knows the Score

By Jonathan J. Ledecky

It's late October, the and LSAT registration rush is on at the "Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center" in Boston. It's a little more than a month away from the next exam, and students are crowded around the front desk, eagerly filling our forms and signing over $300 checks $50 refundable) without a flinch. School shirts and jackets reveal a cross-section of Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, and Wellesley students who have made the pilgrimage to the spanking new Kaplan center on the ninth floor of the Park Square Building.

Classes begin tonight, and students gather their course materials and head for one of the center's classrooms. They are met for the introductory session by Jack Powell, a young Boston trial-lawyer who is moonlighting as a Kaplan instructor "to get up the dough for the mortgage on my house." Small talk and jokes are bantered back and forth, and one can't help but feel that he is back in high school again. The atmosphere has that same tentativeness that always used to mark the first day of class, when you would size up the teacher, and vice-versa.

Although Powell will go on to teach eight four-hour sessions from a Kaplan-prepared primer, tonight he is playing Ed McMahon. He is warming up the audience, setting the stage, we are told, for the main event--a papal blessing from the guru of the educational test-preparation business.

For in walks a small man wearing rumpled double-knits, looking nothing like the head of a multi-million dollar operation. He is surrounded by a small coterie of staff assistants businly vying for his attention; we expect one of them to kiss his ring at any moment. A lady emerges to announce--with great pleasure and relish--that Mr. Stanley Kaplan is here in the flesh to welcome us personally.

"Yeah, right, and I'm Santa Claus," one of the students mumbles, knowing full well that there are 80 Kaplan centers in the United States and abroad. But this is the real McCoy (oops, Kaplan), and we later learn that Kaplan refuses to franchise his operation, continually flying across the country from center-to-center with the incessant drive and ambition that has made him the nation's test-prep messiah.

The Kaplan success story is a combination of Horatio Alger hype and pure chutzpah. He grew up in Brooklyn, son of a plumbing contractor and a housewife. At James Madison High School, he became enamored to teaching, and recalls now that he used to bribe his stickball buddies to listen to him practice teaching. But while he was enrolled at City College of New York, the tables began to turn.

People started paying the junior Phi Beta Kappa key-winner to tutor their children. "It was pretty primitive compared to what I'm doing now," Kaplan said recently during an interview. "Forty years ago there were no standardized tests. The big thing was grade-point average, so I tutored in the three R's." Kaplan's engaging whiz-kid personality rubbed off on his clients--his reputation grew to the point where he was tutoring 200 students on a one-to-one basis.

Meanwhile, Kaplan was graduating magna cum laude from CCNY in 1939 before earning his master's in education the following year. Before long, his high school tutees had become college students worried about a new test--the LSAT's--and Kaplan began tutoring privately for that test.

Kaplan also went on to write books in 16 subject areas for the Barron's Regent Series. "Mr. Barron started small like I did in a little store in Brooklyn, and I don't know how many times I came in to tell him about the mistakes he was making in his books," said Kaplan, who today has branches in Switzerland, Toronto and San Juan. Kaplan says that Barron finally told him to put up or shut up, and gave him his first chance at writing a textbook.

With the advent of the SAT, Kaplan found his work load too much to handle individually. Word-of-mouth advertising about the feisty tutor had spread to Queens and manhattan. He opened a permanent center in Brooklyn to handle the load, and rented places in the other boroughs in which to teach. His metropolitan area business continued to snowball as he became better known and the standardized tests more important.

Kaplan says that in the 1960s he began noticing that his pupils were coming to New York from such far away places as Florida and California just to take his course. Still, his tree stayed in Brooklyn.

"My students started telling me I was crazy, that I had a great thing, and should run with it," is the way Kaplan explains his incredible business growth. "People kept telling me that there was a gold mine out there, but I resisted expanding because I was afraid that I couldn't maintain the quality associated with my name." Finally, high school guidance counselors across the country started calling Kaplan to complain that he was not being fair to students outside New York.

Cautiously, and with the help of his son, Kaplan slowly began to expand in 1969. Just two years ago, he had but 15 centers; today the number is 80 and rising. Indeed, many of his brochures can't keep pace with his rapid growth.

"It's been like spokes in a wheel," says Kaplan. "We open a center in Nashville, and people in Memphis call and ask why we don't open one in their town so their kids can have it. No sooner than that happens and the people in Knoxville call, and so on." Indeed, Kaplan is quickly establishing permanent centers in every major American city, coast-to-coast; over 25,000 students will take a kaplan course this year.

Kaplan stresses his permanency and non-enfranchisement policy in order to separate himself from fly-by-night operators. A full-time research staff in his national headquarters in New York continually revamps course material. Kaplan pioneered the learning-through-tapes method. His approach, then, is three pronged--students attend class, receive 50 hours of homework, and have access to over 60 hours of tapes and practice tests on a daily basis.

Kaplan admits that he has done very well financially as of late, but one finds from talking with him that he is suffering from a split personality. On the one hand, he is the kindly old schoolmaster, genuinely interested in the students who walk through his doors, concerned that his preparation material is always fresh. On the other hand, he has become a businessman far removed from Brooklyn and his humble origins. There is a push and a pull operating within him.

"The doctor didn't create the epidemic," he says in defense of accusations that he plays on student's fears. "The anxiety is there--remember that the students come to me for help." Kaplan does admit, however, that he has done a lot more advertising lately in "self-defense. I want the students to have a choice between us and some of those other test-prep organizations."

Kaplan also has a scholarship program and says that 10 per cent of his students receive financial aid upon proper documentation and a discussion of their credentials and motivation for college or graduate study.

It's time now for Kaplan to leave his Boston center (the second largest branch behind his Madison Avenue office in Manhattan),to go back to New York on the last shuttle. He kisses his daughters--who run the Boston center--goodbye.

"You know, the other day I was in New York and this college student came up to me and introduced himself. Turns out I had tutored his father when he was in high school in Brooklyn." Kaplan sighs and smiles. "If his Dad had told me way back then that I'd have 80 centers and a place like this," he continues, "I would have told him to have his head examined."

And with that, Stanley Kaplan takes one more look at the new center, opens the door that says "Stanley H. Kaplan," and walks out.

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