Opinion: Ambivalence from the Economics Department Allows for Third-Party Profit

As the year begins, fresh economics students receive leaflets in most of their economics classes. In those leaflets, theEconTutor and a bunch of his students advertise how well theEconTutor helps them complete their courses, learn the material and score high on tests. These leaflets further urge the students to get “the Quarter Pass” for $175 to go to any review session theEconTutor provides, or simply to pay $30 for an individual session. However, his courses are questionable in quality, especially next to the resources already provided by the economics department. The lack of an explicit and uniform statement from the department regarding the tutor, as well as decentralized and hard-to-navigate academic resources, leaves the department with an ever-growing number of undergraduates paying to theEconTutor to help them.

TheEconTutor, Eric Kyner, has taught UC San Diego economics students for more than 16 years after he himself dropped out of the UCSD Ph.D. economics program. At first, he gave one-on-one sessions to struggling undergraduates, but in 2002 he was escorted off of campus by campus police for trespassing. Undeterred, he moved to an off-campus operation which has grown significantly in the years since, and he now provides tutoring for over 20 UCSD economics courses.  

The broad scope of his curriculum, and his pervasive advertisements, creates several problems in the economics department. Most importantly, economics courses are graded on a curve, so if those students who get help from theEconTutor score higher, students who did not or could not pay for his service are put at a disadvantage. Many students started considering theEconTutor as a resource mandatory to succeed in economics courses.  

The actual quality of his tutoring also leaves a lot to be desired. In his sessions, he does not explain most of the material but instead goes over the solutions to many problems in class. Two-hour sessions where students are fed all the solution to homework and previous exam problems do not encourage developing a deep understanding of a material and productive learning habits. These previous exam problems are also allegedly acquired illicitly, which would explain the strict no-copy policy for his material.

While the economics department has recognized the problem, it has never come up with an official position. In 2005 when two professors from the department interviewed for The San Diego Union-Tribune article about theEconTutor, they formulated two contradictory opinions. “We’re lucky to have Eric. I’m an economist. If students are willing to pay, I’m not against my students learning anything,” Melissa Famulary, professor and vice chancellor of Undergraduate Studies and Instruction in the economics department, said. Marc Muendler, professor in the department of economics argued instead, “he offers no value-added. He flunked out of our Ph.D. program. He failed it.”

The department tries to compete with [Kyner] by offering more and more resources: more office hours time, more review sessions with better qualified TAs, and more online instructional material. Unfortunately, a lot of struggling students are unaware of the available resources, so they end up pursuing the more straightforward and better advertised option — theEconTutor.  Therefore, even though the department has done a very good job at improving its resources, theEconTutor simply markets himself much better.

TheEconTutor’s persistent advertising, combined with the difficulty in navigating through different campus resources, pushes students into theEconTutor’s questionable courses. Because the department and its professors fail to encourage students to take advantage of the myriad resources already available to them, they give an appearance of legitimacy to theEconTutor’s enterprise. If the economics department wishes to guide students in the right direction, it should not only improve the instruction quality and accessibility of resources but also start proactively discouraging students from using theEconTutor services.