Palo Alto Weekly
News - September 2, 2011
A money-back 'guarantee' of college admission?
Consultant setting up shop in Palo Alto proud of unconventional approach
by Chris Kenrick
Steven Ma says his business is "hated by most colleges."
But the business — helping Asian-American students, and students from China, get into U.S. colleges — is thriving and expanding.
Ma, who opened an office in Palo Alto this week, is founder and CEO of the college consulting business ThinkTank Learning. This month's new offices in Palo Alto and Pleasanton join the ranks of older Bay Area ThinkTank locations in Cupertino, Fremont, San Mateo, Millbrae and San Francisco.
And seizing on the rising number of wealthy Chinese families desiring to send their kids to U.S. colleges, ThinkTank has added three Chinese offices since 2009, in Shenzen, Beijing and, recently, Zhuhai.
Ma offers a particularly aggressive form of independent college consulting, promoting a money-back "guarantee" of admission to a particular class of schools, depending on a student's profile.
Such guarantees violate the ethical guidelines espoused by the Independent Educational Consultants Association — but Ma makes no apologies. "I'm challenging the system in the U.S.," he said.
"I'm probably on the colleges' blacklist, but I have no problem admitting to that because to me, I'm the student's defense attorney and the colleges are the DA.
"I have to help my client — I tell the client what to do. They (colleges) don't want an applicant to be told what to do because it interferes with their judgment."
Prices depend on the amount of work a client requires and range from $6,000 to — in one case — a quarter-million dollars. The fee for most students is $10,000 to $12,000, he said. The $6,000 rate "is when you could get in yourself. You just want peace of mind — your chance of admission is so high," he said.
In the more demanding cases, ThinkTank goes beyond helping a student tell his story to "helping him fundamentally elevate his criteria," Ma said.
He cites the case of a C-plus student with whom ThinkTank worked to transform a "computer addiction" into a gaming business. ThinkTank helped the students hire Santa Clara University art students to assist in executing his game concept and eventually sell the business for tens of thousands of dollars.
"In eight months he got so much experience from negotiating with investors, cold-calling people, hosting meetings, commanding college students who were older than him," Ma said. "We took this experience and elaborated on it in his college application."
College counselors at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools long have maintained that it's not necessary for families to hire outside counselors, but an increasing number of college consultants have set up shop in the area.
Paly recently launched an effort to track the use of independent counselors but with just a 30 percent response rate, survey results are so far insufficient to present a clear picture.
Of 163 respondents in 2010, 60 used a private counselor and 58 said they would recommend the consultant to a friend, Assistant Principal Kim Diorio said. Of 113 respondents in 2011, 40 said they used a private counselor and 34 said they would recommend it.
"I believe our Gunn students are well served and do not have to hire an outside counselor to receive incredible support and guidance," Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos said. "It is up to families to make the decision ... but they will be supported throughout the process with our guidance counselors."
Ma said he targets Asian students "because we didn't have a marketing arm that catered to the non-Asian population — our channel revolves around the Chinese and Korean media. But I have a strong intention to penetrate non-Asian markets."
In scouting for new locations, Ma said he looks for high-scoring schools, a high Asian concentration and high-income zip codes.
His proprietary software, called "Predictor," plugs a student's metrics — such as test scores, GPA, grade trends, leadership experience — into the computer to produce a realistic list of schools, and determine whether or not ThinkTank is willing to offer a money-back guarantee for that student.
Color-coded symbols on the screen tell a student, his parents and the ThinkTank consultant whether the student is on target in areas such as test scores, volunteer projects, leadership and a "signature project."
A native of Taiwan, Ma moved to California with his family when he was in third grade and said he was a mediocre student at Lodi High School until a math teacher inspired him to jump ahead. He studied math and physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and worked as a hedge-fund analyst and high school math teacher before launching his business in Cupertino in 2002.
Later, he entered the growing Chinese market, adding that he has crossed the Pacific as many as 18 times in the past year.
"The Chinese economy is getting better and more and more people can afford" to send their children to U.S. colleges, he said, noting a rising number of Chinese students taking the SAT.
And U.S. colleges are admitting more international students. At the University of California, international freshman admissions have doubled or more since 2009, rising from 5.7 percent to 9.6 percent of the total at Berkeley; 3.1 percent to 7.1 percent of the total at Davis; and 5.6 percent to 15 percent of the total at Los Angeles, according to preliminary data published by the university and provided by Ma.
Many consultants are competing for the Chinese business, but Ma believes he has an edge. "We differ by guaranteeing them admission to the top 80 schools in the U.S. We have a statistical, proprietary program I built for that."
Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said the organization warns parents to "stay away from working with anyone who makes a guarantee of admission to top choices for college.
"We advise parents that if the promotion is about 'getting in,' they should avoid the firm and look for one that emphasizes 'a great match,'" Sklarow said.
Ma said he also tries to match students to realistic colleges, but doesn't shy from guarantees, or working to boost a student's fundamentals.
He and the colleges, he said, "are on different sides of the ring."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.
Posted by former Paly parent,
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:54 pm
I strongly oppose these costly college counseling services. You really have to be around people using them for years to undersstand they are NOT about the authentic child. They bring short-term advantages, sometimes. They are bringing a very ugly mentality and unfair competition to this country.
Like anything, there is a spectrum of practices, and some are really over the top. I get the sense some people have brought over the cram school mentality.
It's NOT about learning and respect for education. It's about SCORES. It's about insisting that Ivy League + SM, perhaps top 3 LACs(US News & WR rankings) are somehow engraved in stone as the ONLY schools worth striving for and attending. It's about monies families putting out 20+ apps (and now, MORE have to choose to do that to keep up, since you compete with your peers from your high school owing to geographic distribution and the need to be competitive with current practices at your school - #APs taken, for example. Never mind that some kids have been prepped in advance of each AP and for each test, and that not all choose to do this deceptive hand-holding nor can afford it!
Umm..your future is NOT doomed if you do not attend Harvard. Check with Buffett.
The president of Reed College famously wrote in the past year about what nonsense these increasingly influential college rankings are...how they are doctored to some extent.
I suggest that "groupings" within the rankings DOES make some sense and can guide a student to make educated guesses about suitable schools, where students will be in the same stats range, and where to apply. But many schools are DIFFERENT and cannot be numerically ranked with utter certainty, as the vulgar college counseling services insist, using extreme fear to motivate their wealthy, uninformed clients.
The extreme college counseling services do perpetuate nonsense about being Ivy or...college is worth nothing. This is appalling ignorance.
According to these doofuses, Cal Tech, for example, is not a top school. Grinnell College is not worth considering. Recently, because of this nonsense, certain people are undervaluaing UC Berkeley and U Mich, for two very good examples. The problem is this nonsense gets into the general public "knowledge" and "opinion" and damages entirely valid schools.
Oh, don't forget the near-Ivies and the "lesser ivies" -- they are worth VERY little (never mind one near Ivy takes the most national merit finalists right after Harvard, again, for a selected example-)
Colleges and universities that have big PR/ad budgets are increasing advertising, outreach to wide array of students to increase applications (in order to then reduce acceptance rates); some take a LOT off waitlists - so, the point is, why not RESEARCH schools, majors, careers, cities, etc. rather than follow blindly what some college counseling service insists is their "inside" advice, with their "inside" contacts.
How about being an honest person?!
Some college counselors are secretive. Some use tactics to clearly ensure a certain ethnic clientele. They certainly are not regulated, and the idea of making guarantees is just vulgar, IMO.
If a kid attends sports camps, THEY have to do the actual sports, though the guidance WILL help. From what I observed here in Silicon Valley, there is widespread cheating going on with ethnic-based college counseling services. Students can be so closely supervised year-round as to take away individuality, responsibility, accountability for "their" own work!
There are local informal ethnic networks whereby curriculum is carefully saved and
passed within a chain of persons; MOST of our kids do not enjoy
such secret privileges
I have believed students should learn as they go - in class.
Yes, a highly motivated student may be tutored to advance in a particular favorite subject; that is NOT what is being objected to here. I object to a practice which amounts to being prepped outside of school in advance of school ("earning" the grade). It boils down to competition; what others do around you does affect you as you submit your college apps. The standard advice I give to the non-cheaters is to proclaim loud and clear that you did your own work, wrote your own essays, made your own choices (about where to apply, etc.) and speak from your heart. More top colleges are noticing packaged students that are really very similar, and the packaging may be beginning to backfire...
The Tiger Mom deceptive practices should be discouraged as they are not authentic.
It is well known that SAT scores can be substantively raised with extreme (sophisticated) prepping. Some very average students are packaged to appear to be "stars."
Exeter is an excellent, historically famous private school -
yes, however there are quite a few excellent public schools around this country. For example, meet college students (when your kids attend college) and find out about these schools - I have - they are all over.
I knew several kids from Los Altos High School who seemed to have high-grade counseling (appeared superior to PAUSD practices at the time, anyway-); my note would be things are often in flux in PAUSD HS, so I am not sure of the quality of their college counseling currently. The administration of the HS we knew here has changed remarkably over the past decade, for example.
Really, don't decide the quality of a high school by noting the #of AP tests forced by parents on their kids; instead READ the DESCRIPTIONS of interesting schools that are occasionally published as part of these semi-silly HS rankings. The other point is that in the U.S., THINGS CHANGE, especially in education! - thereby to some extent negating what is the cool place to be.
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