2016 Article: Kaplan, TPR in trouble?

Kaplan and The Princeton Review recently posted 3Q Financials. Both companies report declines in their YTD Test Prep business segments (-4% and -15% respectively).

While these declines may seem disconcerting to independent tutors and boutique tutoring firms, there are some important considerations to, well, consider:

  1. 2015 3Q results (the comparator) were likely artificially bolstered by the then news of CB’s 2016 SAT test change. In short, demand increased in Q3 & Q4 2015 through January 2016 for the old SAT. This pattern of behavior is normal in the world of commercial test prep and tutoring; essentially a mix of game theory and anxiety drive demand. Said differently, one may posit that either or both companies did so well in 2015 that their 2016 results could not match those results.
  2. The number of overall test takers and students submitting both SAT and ACT scores has reportedly increased. Why is this important? In simplest terms, it means that the gross demand has not waned in spite of the various market diversions.
  3. Both companies offer Grad Test Prep (GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, DAT, OAT etc.) and there is little if any detail on how the product mix has impacted the financial results (although TPR reported that their troubles were related directly to the difficulty engaging SAT students).
  4. SAT and ACT tests are most relevant to us within the context of US College Admissions. If one uses an indicator, such as early admissions rates to competitive colleges, one may conclude that the demand for elite SAT and ACT test prep will increase for high quality independent tutor and boutique provider. [See Table].

But let’s be clear, the test prep & tutoring space has shifted in a profound way and it is only a matter of time before many, not all, but many independent firms will be impacted. The fact that Kaplan has partnered with ACT Inc. to offer low cost remote ACT tutoring was presumably in response to the relationship between The College Board & Khan Academy (which is offering free web based SAT prep). This integrationis a signal to the rest of the market. Without going into significant detail, here is what you should be asking yourself:

“When a market leader in an oligopoly vertically integrates with a supplier, what does it mean?” 


“If the integration reduces the expenses related to their mode of delivery or/and the average price for a product, what does it mean for the rest of space?”

…And here is where you might want to dust off your copy of Who moved my cheese? There is no simple solution but there is one trap to avoid: inaction. If these market shifts can be considered the proverbial “writing on the wall” then broad stroke strategic thinking should be happening. Think about pricing, positioning, rebranding, niche strategy or diversification as potential paths worth exploring during that broad stroke thinking.

Thankfully, there has always been a bit of a built-in break during the latter half of December. As you’ve heard us say before: “dig the well before you are thirsty.”

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