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As high schoolers finish their college applications this fall, Steven Ma gets ready to cash in.
It’s busy season for the 39-year-old former hedge-fund analyst and immigrant from Taiwan. Ma owns and runs a business that offers parents, most of them Asian, something priceless: a spot for their kids at a top-notch U.S. college.
But the money-back guarantee, when he’s willing to make one, can come at a hefty cost — sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.
“Nobody really would tell you exactly what it takes to get into a top-tier college,” Ma, president and CEO of ThinkTank Learning, told NBC News.
"The most impact I can impart on a student...is to help them discover who they are."
“That leads to a lot of confusion for students,” he said.
Ma’s company, founded in 2002, claims it can debunk the mystique around college admissions through a secret algorithm he designed. It considers academic components like GPA and SAT scores as well as non-academic ones like community service and after-school activities, he said.
The mathematical model, according to Ma, has proven very accurate and reliable in the past 10 years.
He claims it can correctly predict the chances of students getting into their top-choice school 93 percent of the time.
“The colleges hate us,” he said.
After crunching the numbers, Ma might learn that more extracurricular activities are needed to bulk up an application. To that end, ThinkTank Learning can arrange internships, say, with a radio station or press secretary of an elected official for someone thinking of majoring in journalism.
The company also provides SAT tutoring and other test and classroom prep, which was how it got its start 15 years ago, Ma said.
College consultation accounts for 30 percent of ThinkTank Learning’s revenue and 10 percent of the 80,000 students it has served so far, according to Ma.
Most high school seniors choose a package valued at $4,500, which covers the cost of two college applications, Ma said. (The Common App, which allows students to apply to many schools, is considered one application.)
That price tag doesn’t come with Ma’s money-back pledge, though. That applies instead to contracts between $4,500 and $100,000 — and for the VIP category between $300,000 and $2 million, he said.
“The price of the guarantee fluctuates based on the perceived risk of the application,” Ma said.
In other words, students with lower SAT scores — and thus a lower chance of admission to top schools — would pay more for a money-back guarantee than those with higher numbers, Ma explained. (This assumes that 11 other factors are all the same, among them GPA and the number of classes taken in high school, he said.)
Erica Lee was a ThinkTank Learning student who didn’t have one of Ma’s money-back guarantee contracts. Lee’s parents enrolled her during her first year of high school after learning about it from their friends.
“I wouldn’t say I was extraordinary, I would say I was average,” Lee told NBC News, referring to her academic performance.
Lee, now 19, credited ThinkTank Learning with helping her navigate the college admissions process and build up her resume.
“I did a lot of pre-med stuff, so I volunteered at hospitals, and I did a lot of volunteering and student government,” she said.
Lee ended up applying to 30 colleges in all, including the University of California system, she said. That was one of three that her ThinkTank Learning consultant helped her with, according to Lee.
She was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently a sophomore.
“Contrary to public opinion, the more competitive a college that you’re looking at, the less they care about the academic component.”
Ma acknowledged hearing criticism that ThinkTank Learning plays on the fears of parents, including immigrants, but he dismissed those claims.
“The fears are already there,” he said. “I give hope to tranquilize the fears...to a degree so much that I’m willing to give my money back.”
He also addressed critics who believe expensive college consultation and test prep programs create an uneven playing field by giving a leg-up only to those who can afford them.
Ma said ThinkTank Learning offers pro-bono services and has worked with schools in Oakland, California.
Around 90 percent of ThinkTank Learning’s clients are Asian, a consequence of being concentrated in the Bay Area, Ma said. They include children of Chinese, Korean, and Indian descent.
His company plans to expand elsewhere in the U.S., Ma said. That includes New York City; Seattle, Washington; and Dallas and Austin, Texas.
It also has three branches in China, Ma said, a country that sends the highest percentage of international students to study in the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education.
With college application deadlines looming, Ma offered some free advice.
“Contrary to public opinion, the more competitive a college that you’re looking at, the less they care about the academic component,” he said. That’s because they have so many applicants presenting the same numbers, Ma explained.
“The fears are already there. I give hope to tranquilize the fears...to a degree so much that I’m willing to give my money back.”
Ma encouraged students to emphasize the things they do outside of class — like sports, clubs, hobbies, and volunteer work — and that make them stand out from others.
He also said Ivy Leagues are not the be-all and end-all of colleges.
“Personally, I don’t think going to an Ivy League or top-tier school is an important component in the equation to success,” said Ma, who has two children.
Ma said he believes the most successful people in the world, among them theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, all knew what they loved to do before turning 18 years old.
"The most impact I can impart on a student...is to help them discover who they are," he said.
Ma acknowledged that an Ivy League diploma does confer benefits, like helping with social networking and how others perceive you.
“But if you have to do it and you have to sacrifice so much just to do it, it’s not worth it,” he added.