This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover story profiles Steven Ma, a 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst who is making millions guaranteeing families that he can get their children into a top college — or their money back.
Ma is the founder of ThinkTank Learning, described by Bloomberg reporter Peter Waldman as “a chain of San Francisco Bay Area tutoring centres that operate out of strip malls.” As long as an applicant can reach a certain GPA and SAT score — and the family pays tens of thousands of dollars — Ma guarantees his almost entirely Asian immigrant clientele admission to one of the best colleges in the country.
According to Waldman, “Some 10,000 students — sixth graders to junior-college grads — use ThinkTank’s services now, generating annual revenue of more than $US18 million.”
Here’s how Ma makes his promises:
Ma, a former hedge fund analyst, makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets. Using 12 variables from a student’s profile — from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status — Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years. Ma’s algorithm, for example, predicts that a U.S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 per cent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 per cent shot at the University of Southern California. Those odds determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $US25,931 to apply to NYU and $US18,826 for USC. “Of course we set limits on who we’ll guarantee,” says Ma. “We don’t want to make this a casino game.”
Ma also offers “custom contracts” that can net ThinkTank over a million dollars. In one such case, Waldman writes, Ma would receive $US1.1 million dollars if he could get a 16-year-old student with an “academic transcript [that] looked like a rap sheet” into U.S. News & World Report’s top ranked school — Harvard and Princeton were both tied for number one at the time.
According to Waldman, “Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep $US300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $US400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at $US600,000, climbing $US10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1.”
More than just focusing on grades and scores, Waldman writes that Ma “tiger-mums the whole kid.” Ma and about 30 ThinkTank “college-admission consultants” help students find community college classes, internships, and volunteer positions to help beef up their applications. The ThinkTank team will also “brainstorm and edit essays to ‘strategically position’ students’ voices and résumés,” Waldman notes.
This brand of quantified college admissions is unsurprisingly derided by the people making the decisions themselves — college admissions officers. Richard Shaw, Stanford University dean of admissions and financial aid, called Ma’s algorithm “ludicrous,” telling Waldman, “Helping young people game the system is the wrong approach.”
However, Ma says he has the data to back up his guarantees. Using University of California, Berkeley — one of the most popular schools among his San Francisco-area clientele — as an example, he tells Waldman that the numbers prove that his methods work.
This year, Berkeley took 17.3% of applicants, with a 4.18 overall high school GPA. According to Ma, he gets more students in with lower grades — 22% of ThinkTank clients applying to Berkeley were accepted, he says, with an average GPA of 4.15.
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