NC State computer engineering student Austin Ketola wants to help bridge the achievement gap between underprivileged students and their affluent peers with his startup, TutorSmith.
It’s an affordable and completely online tutoring platform where K-12 students are paired with qualified, vetted college students to either work in one-on-one sessions or in small group sessions made up of three to five students.
Ketola said his goal for TutorSmith is to be as affordable and accessible as possible.
Along with a free phone consultation, TutorSmith charges $15 for group sessions and $30 for private sessions—or pay what you can. The company will establish a designated fund to help cover costs for students from financially struggling families.
The startup is participating in the current cohort of the NC State Andrews Launch Accelerator, a 14-week summer program where NC State founders get to work on their concepts and build their companies. (We previously profiled one of the other cohort members, LetsGoRaleigh.) Ketola also won Global Entrepreneurship Week’s premiere pitch competition Wolf Den at NC State last November.
“It’s really important that all students have access to quality educational resources,” Ketola said, “especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, especially at a younger age.”
A 2019 study from the journal Education Next reported that extremely disadvantaged students are three to four years behind their more affluent peers. Among the contributing factors are inaccessibility to more enriching schooling environments.
Barriers—like cost, scheduling and shortage of educators—hinder parents’ ability to foster their children’s academic success, Ketola said. Other factors like being a person of color, being female, and growing up speaking another language can “statistically disadvantage kids on factors they can’t control.”
“I was fortunate enough to grow up without many of these struggles and want to use my career to help lift others,” he said. “I believe having a company like TutorSmith will help with a major problem.”
The inspiration behind TutorSmith came to Ketola while he was in high school—he went to East Lincoln High School outside Charlotte before attending Durham’s North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics his last two years—and looking for a way to work as an online tutor. He loved tutoring his peers in math in his neighborhood.
He quickly discovered that the job itself was typically restricted to those with college degrees. He also saw online tutor rates go as high as $100 an hour.
He remembers thinking that tutoring could—and should—be a lot cheaper.
To recruit tutors for TutorSmith, Ketola has talked to friends and gone through NC State’s College of Education. The company has had about 10 to 15 people express interest.
Most, if not all, will have prior tutoring experience, he said. All will undergo background checks and present a demo tutoring session. The pay rates will range from $20 to $30 depending on experience.
Having only launched this month, TutorSmith is in its pilot phase, which includes customer discovery, setting up the website, and finding users.
They have two upcoming informational sessions for students and parents on June 27 and July 11, Ketola said. All who attend get two free tutoring sessions.
Currently, the company is only hosting small group ‘refresher’ courses in math for 10 to 12 weeks this summer. It is aimed to help reinforce concepts learned in school and reintroduce new ones.
Ketola said they are open to covering other subjects, but math is in the highest demand at the moment. Going forward the session structure will be the same but shift to reinforcing concepts throughout the year. This will also apply to students from year-round schools.
By the end of this summer, he hopes to have 50 users, and then by the end of this year, hopes to have 100 users.
“It’s been really rewarding in terms of just being able to start an actual business,” Ketola said, “and (to) have a business that actually helps people.”