Renowned college-admissions expert Mayssoun Bydon, the founder of Ann Arbor’s Institute for Higher Learning, weighs in on this unprecedented school year
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
Education is always a hot-button topic, but perhaps never more than this year, when the fate of the country’s students — from kindergarteners to college seniors — is up in the air.
No one knows this more than Mayssoun Bydon, the founder and managing partner of the Institute for Higher Learning (IHL), an educational consulting firm based in Ann Arbor and New York City. One of the country’s foremost experts on college admissions — she’s consulted for the children of heads of state, tech billionaires and celebrities — Bydon is used to offering insights on everything from test-prep strategies to the application process. But this year, she’s fielding questions she’s never encountered in her 20-plus-year career: If in-person school is an option, should I send my child? Should I quit my job to homeschool? Should I form a pod?Regardless of whether a given district or school opts for live or remote instruction, parental angst over the coming year boils down to one question, says Bydon: “How are we going to manage?” The 44-year-old, who’s based in Ann Arbor but often travels to New York (in non-pandemic times, of course), is among the ranks of stressed parents: She has a 3-½ and 6-year-old. “This is something we never expected as a society,” she says. “We all have our backs against the wall.”
As the new academic year kicks off this month, we caught up with Bydon to discuss the challenges that schools, parents and students face.
You’re a lawyer by trade. How did you get into the education space?
I’d always been a great test-taker. I thought I’d developed a method by which to teach myself the LSAT [the law-school admissions exam] — and I managed to get a perfect score. Once I got into law school at University of Michigan, I started tutoring around town, including one of my professor’s daughters. My professor suggested I could form a company, and in 1996, I started IHL.
For a couple years I worked as an attorney and ran IHL on the side. But I saw how much of a demand there was for my business and in 2001, I got the courage to leave law and focus on IHL full time.
Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up in Saida, Lebanon, and came to Michigan at 13 years old for my sister to go to university. I myself went to university at 16 years old. My mom took pride in the fact that none of her four children ever needed private tutors, but I feel as if her bragging misses the mark. She and my father were our private tutors: I was raised by a university professor and a high-school principal who used to be a teacher.
Tell me a little bit about what IHL offers.
We regard ourselves as a one-stop shop to higher education. We offer college and graduate school admissions counseling; test prep for everything from the SAT to the GMAT; tutoring; career coaching.
Fifty years ago, educational consulting used to be unique — it was for the super upper class, like the Kennedys and Bushes and the very wealthy who were able to afford people like us. Now, there are many mom-and-pop shops like us, both at the elite and middle-of-the-road level. Everyone wants what’s best for their kids.
How has your business fared during the pandemic?
I’ve seen about a 38% uptick in business, and in the last couple months I’ve hired eight more people. There’s been such a boom in our industry. Pre-COVID, someone in, say, Missouri would pass up on hiring us because they wanted a local instructor, or they didn’t want to pay for remote services.
Now, the general population is taking to remote learning, but this is something I knew from my time in the New York market, where, depending on a client’s location, the commute to my office is costly. All these parents asked if we could Skype and we got amazing results. When COVID hit, 90% of our clientele was already remote.
The majority of Metro Detroit’s public school districts are offering virtual-only learning. What kinds of challenges does that present?
We’re facing a much bigger challenge than what happened back in March when schools shut down. Any school that thinks they got it right in March didn’t feel the pulse of the parent population. We were dealing with the shock of a global pandemic, and we all huddled in our homes and prayed for the best. We gave teachers, schools and ourselves a pass in the interest of our kids’ psyches. I got 20 minutes a week with my son’s teacher and that was OK.
This time around, I hope schools know that we can’t lose out on half a year, or an entire year. I hope they’ve put a lot of thought into the importance of engaging face to face, even with a remote curriculum. It can’t just be a 30-minute Zoom [meeting] and worksheets. And starting remote is completely different than ending remote — come March, the students already knew their teachers and teachers knew how to manage their class. At the beginning of the year it’s all up for grabs. I pray for a vaccine every day.
Can you talk about the larger educational challenges we’re up against as a society?
The [academic] equity gap will become larger, for one. A lot of kids and parents rely on public school as shelter during work hours, and as an educational institution because they don’t have the means to hire a tutor. Then there are the questions of whether kids have computers — and the internet — at home. Is their space set up for learning? Who’s feeding them lunch? Can they afford lunch? It’s heartbreaking to think about.
The divide between rich and poor has been happening for decades, and now that divide is going to get deeper. At the end of the day, all these kids are measured against each other whether it’s standardized tests or time for college. And now, we’re not only going to see a difference between, say, Flint and Ann Arbor public schools — we’re going to see it between Birmingham public and Birmingham private schools. And that’s something [people] aren’t used to. We all have FOMO as parents, in education more than anywhere. Every mom and dad have a fear of their kid getting the short end of the stick.
What’s your take on pods?
As a mom, I love the idea. I’m actually forming a pod for my son, who’s going into first grade, and his classmates. We’re getting a lot of inquiries about pods at IHL, too. We’ve decided to keep the price the same for the elementary and high school level, whether we’re teaching one kid or 10. It’s more affordable [for parents] that way.
How will all of this affect college students?
At the university level, parents need not worry about getting the educational value for their money. I say that with so much certainty. Universities are set up to kill this — many of these schools already had remote elements to their classes, and they’re sitting on funds they can utilize. Four-year schools understand the importance of jobs coming down the line and they won’t let us down.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Catch our Facebook Live with Mayssoun Bydon and SEEN’s Editor-In-Chief Nicole Mazur, as they discuss hot topics surrounding the upcoming school year below.
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