Fighting Alumni Bias
June 01, 2011, 02:46 PM
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Here's an amusing NYT article about how Chinese-American firms that mold applications to fancy colleges for hefty fees are expanding into the Mainland China market, where they write essays and create Potemkin extracurricular activities
LuShuang Xu provides an example of that approach. Ms. Xu, who was born and raised in China before emigrating to suburban California at age 9, had high hopes that she would be the first in her family to go to college. But poor results on a practice SAT and a dearth of extracurricular activities convinced Ms. Xu, 17, that she needed a scholastic makeover if she were to make it into a school her parents could brag about to relatives.
ThinkTank sent her to a public speaking camp, helped her improve her college essay and gave her the e-mail addresses of all the members of the Stanford University history department. At the company's prompting, she found two internships with department professors. She also enrolled in ThinkTank's college prep courses, which helped improve her SAT score 410 points to 2160 out of 2400. Next autumn, she will start at Harvard University.
ThinkTank's success with students in California's Asian-American community, which accounts for 90 percent of the company's American clients, has drawn interest from wealthy parents in China. Mr. Ma opened an office in Shenzhen in 2009 and another in Beijing last year.
The company entered China at a time when the college consulting industry on the mainland was booming, with numerous agencies promising to make Chinese student's academic dreams come true, often through questionable practices.
One company, Best Education, has offices across China and charges clients an average of 500,000 renminbi for writing clients' essays, training them for the visa interview at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and providing career guidance.
"The students just supply their information and we do all the work," said one representative, who requested anonymity to protect his job. Best Education offers a 50 percent refund if an applicant is rejected by the student's chosen schools. ...
Reached by telephone, an agency representative said the company did a lot more than just polish r?©sum?©s. "If a client's English is poor, our trained professionals can write the essay to make sure it looks perfect," she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from her employer.
Helping students from China clear the college entry hurdles has presented ThinkTank with a fresh set of challenges. Often they have poor English language skills and have done little with their free time beyond homework. Yet their parents often demand the Ivy League.
"We really have to hold their hand and do everything along with them," Mr. Ma said, including deliberately leaving spelling mistakes on college essays so they look authentic, training them for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and building extracurricular activities from the ground up.
ThinkTank has founded Model United Nations groups, built a Web site for a Shanghai student's photography project to get news media coverage and helped another obtain funding to build a hydroelectric generator.
This raises the more general question of why anybody, Chinese or non-Chinese, cares so much about getting into a famous American college? Obviously, some of it is sheer social climbing — bragging to relatives, etc. Yet, there is a rational piece of the puzzle, which is that many elite employers, such as Goldman Sachs, discriminate extravagantly based on college attended (see Steve Hsu here and here). Many super-lucrative Wall Street firms won't bother recruiting at non-Ivy League campuses, and some even feel Columbia is a little downscale for them. Why? Well, there are various obvious reasons of convenience, but another is sheer self-interest. If you graduated from Harvard, keeping it much easier for Harvard students to get hired by your company than equally gifted graduates of lesser-known colleges burnishes the name Harvard, which is on your resume. Plus, your kids will have some legacy pull when they apply to Harvard so why give outsiders an even break? In other words, there is a pervasive pattern of hiring bias perpetuated by an old boy's network. When discrimination involves race or sex, government and media go on red alert. But when it involves colleges, well, who cares? Now, one thing we could do to reduce college admissions mania is make Wall Street a little less lucrative. But, that seems beyond imagining. So, let's think about a direct approach. The normal solution for discrimination is quotas, explicit or covert. So, why not quotas for, say, Goldman Sachs? GS is not only vastly wealthy, but has been hugely helped out in recent years by the taxpayers (e.g., the AIG bailout, which saved Goldman $13 billion). So, Goldman should publicly commit to doubling the percentage of new recruits it hires each year from public universities.

I'm not sure that this is a great idea, but what's interesting is that it's a rather novel idea.