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."