It is always amazing to me how many “free offers” are waiting for me every morning in my Inbox. Over the years, I have been added to many educational email lists. While I have unsubscribed from those that are completely irrelevant, there are others that for various reasons, I have decided to keep. One of the things that always grabs my attention are how many “free” opportunities there are for students who are looking for additional learning opportunities. This morning for example, I received an offer for 5 free Spanish lessons. First, I thought to myself how cool it would be to learn Spanish, especially for free! Well, this company did their job. They got my attention and they got me to click on some of the links to find out more about their programs. As is sadly the case with most “free” offers, the 5 free Spanish lessons were only available if I agreed to sign up for 3 months of pre-recorded online lessons. Well, so much for that. My quest to learn Spanish would have to be put on hold once again.

As a business owner and educational provider, I understand that sometimes we need to grab the attention of potential customers. There are various ways that businesses do that, but the question is, at what point is the email header promising free learning just an outright lie? I happen to know first hand just how desperate some students (and parents) become 6 weeks before the SAT’s or 2 weeks before final exams. Often, students are seeking any extra help they can find. This is either because they squandered the previous time provided or because they feel they need to brush up before the big test. One student who eventually used my company, Bonim B’Yachad for SAT tutoring, told me that he spent what seemed like an entire day clicking through the “free” offers and classes. He said that the amount of frustration that built up almost overwhelmed him, as he was already in full panic mode because of the exam. This student said that most of the offers he found were really just ploys to get him to sign up for other online courses and to purchase books and other materials. He said that he knew not to buy these items, but he also started to think about how many students are wasting their time and money on services that are not really free, simply because they are desperate for help on these important exams.

This problem is not only related to education, but with so many educational programs available both online and in-person, how can students and parents find the help that they need without getting “sucked in” to a bad situation?

After many years of working in education and in business, I can honestly say that the old “you get what you pay for” expression is usually accurate. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a free course. If you expect to take a course or to receive tutoring sessions, you are going to have to pay. Some companies will offer a free trial session, but after that, the clock will usually start running. Some companies or organizations will also offer scholarships, but the reality is that often, these students are not receiving the “A list” resources.

There are of course a great deal of free educational resources available online. These however are different from courses or personalzied tutoring sessions. If you are looking for resources, whether online or in-person, consider the following:

1. What’s Included? Make sure you know exactly what you are paying for up front. A reputable program will never ask for more money later on. The charge for the course or session should be final.

2. Who is Providing the Services? Just because someone says he is a great teacher, that does not mean that it is true. Services that have been around a while have the proven track records, but they can also be more expensive. Newer services may be cheaper but they do not have the same history. If you go with a newer option, just make sure to check references and to find out who will actually be providing the service. There are online companies that outsource online tutoring to India. One of our current students told me that she couldn’t understand what her biology tutor was saying. The student’s mother said they signed up because the company was charging $20 per lesson, a fraction of what an in-person tutor cost. This backfired and wasted a lot of time and money.

3. What Are Your “Out” Options? Sometimes, a student will find that the selected program is just not working. This does not always mean that there is something wrong with the program or the teacher, but as is the case with a classroom teacher, sometimes a student just does not “click” with his tutor. Be sure that you always have an “out” option. You do not want to get stuck paying for tutoring that is not being used.

During this point of the school year, many students either need some extra help, or want to take additional credit based courses. With the amount of resources available, it is important to make sure that you are getting the best services possible. It is not always about the cheapest option. At the end of the day, you really do get what you pay for. Make sure that you choose the right solution.