Rich Chinese parents also caught up in college admissions scandal

PHOTO: AFP

HUGE AMOUNTS PAID FOR ENTRY TO ELITE SCHOOLS

Paying millions of dollars to secure their children a spot at an elite college may sound absurd to many parents, but some are willing to do this.

Nicole Shen, the Chinese mother of a high school student in Palo Alto, California, said she would be willing to pay a pretty penny upfront to get her daughter admitted to a top-tier university if she could afford it. "As long as everything is legal," she added.

Two wealthy Chinese families have recently been in the spotlight and the subject of widespread discussion after media reports showed they paid huge amounts in a high-profile college admissions scandal. The sums they paid dwarfed the typical amount footed by US parents.

The highest-known payoff to date is the $6.5 million (S$1 million) by billionaire Zhao Tao, president and co-founder of Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals Co.

Zhao, 52, was introduced to William "Rick" Singer, a college consultant in California and the mastermind behind the scandal, by Michael Wu, who worked as an adviser at the Los Angeles area branch of investment bank Morgan Stanley, according to the Los Angeles Times. Wu has since been fired.

To ensure Zhao's daughter, Zhao Yusi, was admitted to Stanford University in California, Singer focused on the school's sailing programme, even though the girl had no experience in the sport.

She was admitted to Stanford in 2017, but was not recruited to the sailing programme.

A few weeks after their daughter's admission, the Zhaos paid $6.5 million to Singer, who appears to have kept the bulk of the money for himself. Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer received only $500,000 in connection with Zhao Yusi's admission. He has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Stanford spokesman Ernest Miranda said that a student's admission was rescinded last month because of false material in the application, but did not confirm the student's identity, citing the "federal student privacy law".

According to The Stanford Daily, the school's independent newspaper, Zhao Yusi moved out of her campus residence on March 30, three days before the university confirmed her expulsion.

The second-highest known payment, of $1.2 million, was also made by a Chinese family. Sherry Guo's parents paid Singer this amount after their daughter was admitted to Yale University in late 2017.

Visitors collect pamphlets at the Educational Testing Service booth at the 2018 China International Education Exhibition in Beijing.Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network 

Singer created a false profile for Guo, presenting her as a competitive football player. He paid former Yale women's football coach Rudolph Meredith $400,000 to pass Guo off as a recruited player, despite Guo never having played football competitively.

Guo has since been expelled by Yale. Meredith resigned and pleaded guilty to federal fraud-related charges.

Neither the Guos nor the Zhaos have been charged in the investigation, which was made public in March. Federal prosecutors have charged 50 people in six states, including 33 parents who allegedly paid a total of $25 million to Singer between 2011 and February this year.

The typical sum ranges from $15,000 to $75,000 per child for rigged college entrance exams, and $100,000 to $400,000 per child for what Singer called his "side door" to admission-guaranteed access to top institutions. Most international students gain admission through the "front door"-doing it on their own.

In court, Singer admitted using his charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, to collect payments from parents and bribing coaches and others. He has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Parents who have pleaded guilty or agreed to do so include the president of a California real estate company and his wife, and the actress Felicity Huffman.

ESSAY DIFFICULTIES

Both the Zhaos and the Guos have issued statements through their lawyers, saying they were not aware of Singer's aims.

The Guos' attorney, James Spertus, said Singer preyed on Chinese families who were not familiar with the US education system, and he charged them sums far higher than those he received from his domestic clients.

In China, college admission is based largely on scores attained in the gaokao, the national college entrance examination, rather than a process involving essays, extracurricular activities and other factors.

Chinese students planning to apply for US colleges usually struggle with the personal essay, a critical part of the application process, because the US essay style is hugely different from the Chinese style.

Elizabeth Venturini, owner of Los Angeles admissions consultancy College Career Results, said: "Unscrupulous college consultants know international students pay the full tuition price. If they can afford full tuition, they can afford their services.

"To command their high prices, they might promise a wealthy family that their child will get into a top school by writing their essays, filling out their application, or through other unethical activities."

Photo: China Daily/Asia News Network 

Private counselors' services can be extensive, from providing several versions of edited application essays to setting students up with internships and volunteer opportunities.

Nicole Shen said she paid a counselor $12,000 to edit seven or eight of her daughter's college application essays. She also regularly takes her daughter to private tutors who charge $180 per hour.

"It's very normal (to hire private counselors and tutors) among Chinese parents (living in the San Francisco Bay Area)," Shen said. She is in several WeChat groups, each having hundreds of parents.

Shen said it is easy to find a counselor. "You just post your request in the groups, and somebody will quickly respond with recommendations. I know many parents easily spend over $150,000 on the counseling or tutoring."

The San Francisco Bay Area has a high concentration of private college admissions consultants. Tutoring schools and consultancies with Chinese signs can be seen in shopping malls.

A popular consultant is IvyMax, which bills itself as the "largest, most influential US premier college application institution serving the Chinese-American community".

In its Chinese advertisement, it says its "professional counseling team" comprises graduates from Ivy League schools, and its services include "essay writing".

Venturini said having essays written by others is considered highly unethical among US colleges. "If your student was found to have had their essay written by someone else, it is very possible they would be denied admittance, or their admittance offer would be taken away," she said.

College admissions scandals in the US targeting Chinese families are nothing new.

In 2012, Chinese couple Gerald and Lily Chow sued Mark Zimny, who ran the education consultancy IvyAdmit in Massachusetts, after their sons were rejected by Harvard University, according to a Boston Globe report.

Chow, head of the jewelry giant Chow Sang Sang Holdings, and his wife alleged that Zimny promised to "pull personal strings" with development officers at Ivy League colleges. Over two years, the couple paid IvyAdmit $2.2 million.

Zimny warned the Chows against paying money to schools directly. He allegedly advised them to use his company as a middleman because "embedded racism" made development officials wary of Asian donors, according to the report.

Acting as a middleman for donations is barred by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the industry's dominant trade group.

Venturini said it takes years to build up a donor relationship with a school. "Attempting to donate a huge amount of money for a school that your teen just happened to be applying to would be looked upon as suspicious to say the least," she said.

In response to the recent bribery scandal, California Assembly member Evan Low has introduced a bill to "restore integrity to college admissions processes".

Of the 11 schools implicated in the scandal, five are in California. Currently, the practices of college consultants in the US are unregulated and membership of industry associations such as the IECA is voluntary.

The bill requires college consultants who receive $5,000 or more per year for their services to register with the Secretary of State. As part of the bill's provisions, the College Consulting Advisory Task Force aims to develop best practices and put forward recommendations to better regulate the field of college consulting.

LUXURY STATUS SYMBOL

US higher education institutions have been attracting a growing number of international students, with China the largest contributor.

More than 363,000 Chinese students were enrolled in US colleges and universities in the 2017-18 academic year, accounting for about one-third of the total international student population in the country, according to a report by the Institute of International Education in New York.

Many Chinese families are familiar with leading US colleges because they are heavily advertised.

"Going to a highly prestigious US college is a luxury status symbol in China. They (parents) see the US college system as the best in the world," Venturini said. "These are the schools they want their kids to attend so they can network and make future contacts among students of their own economic and social class."

It's all about applying the "finishing touch" for a student, and there is also the prestige of being able to college name-drop as graduates climb academic, economic and social ladders, she said.

Venturini is writing a book on how Chinese parents navigate the US education system. She said parents in China and other Asian countries place high value on education and will pay a fortune to make their children stand out among highly prestigious schools.

"Ambitious parents will look at every possible way to get their kids into those schools. Unethical consultants prey upon wealthy parents, assuring them they can get their kids into their dream schools," she said.

Rahul Choudaha, executive vice-president of research at Studyportals, a US company that recruits international students online, said the high demand and aspiration for admission to elite universities have opened the door for unscrupulous consultants to sell "shortcuts" to families and students.

"This is where some consultants are reverse-engineering the university admission process and selling it as a service to families," said Choudaha, an expert on international student trends.

He said many of these leading universities are very strong in terms of their appeal to families around the world, so they are likely to overcome any short-term reputational damage and continue to attract interest from students and families.

"But universities must move forward to enhance the transparency and availability of information about admissions processes so that intermediary consultants cannot take advantage of the information gap, Choudaha said.

Venturini said: "There are only 11 universities out of 4,298 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the US that have been involved in the college admissions scandal. Don't get caught up in all the hysteria."

But Shen, the mother of the high-school student in Palo Alto, has had second thoughts about elite colleges.

"I would have spared nothing to get my daughter into Stanford before I came to the US," said Shen, who has lived in the city where Stanford University is located, for four years.

"I think the efforts (of the Zhaos) are not worth it. I've seen many Stanford professors' children attend a local community college, and they are happy with it. Now, I want my daughter to choose the college she likes."