Former Professor Accused of Swindling Harvard Hopefuls

Soaring numbers of applications and plummeting admissions rates at top-ranked U.S. universities leave many applicants searching anxiously for a spot at a premier institution. When former Harvard lecturer and visiting assistant professor Mark J. Zimny told Gerald and Lily Chow he knew how to assure that their two sons would gain admission to these elite colleges, they bought it.

The Chows, residents of Hong Kong, contend now that Zimny, of IvyAdmit Consulting Associates, LLC, owes them more than $2 million. They filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in April 2010 claiming that Zimny misled them as he took that exorbitant sum from them while claiming to help their sons.

The complaint states that Zimny first met the Chows in 2007. At that time, it says, he introduced himself as a Harvard professor, though he was in fact no longer affiliated with the University. Zimny taught in the sociology department and at the Graduate School of Education from 2001 to 2005.

Zimny claimed that making major donations to Ivy League universities would be crucial in positioning the Chows’ sons for admission, the suit claims. But he told the Chows that making a donation directly would not be beneficial. Instead, he offered to serve as a middleman who could make a donation on their behalf.

The Chows gave Zimny more than $2 million to cover both his services and the contributions to universities, though Zimny did not specify to which institutions he would be making the donations. During this time, IvyAdmit drew up a plan for the admissions process for the Chows’ sons. They set their sights on Harvard.

Zimny was not accredited by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the governing body that vets private college counselors. Requirements for accreditation include having an advanced degree, going through a training process, and visiting many secondary school and college campuses.

Don McMillan, president of an educational consulting firm in Boston, said he was astounded at the news of the case. “There is a small slice of the industry that is really exploiting the flow of money from [Asia],” he said.

“It just made me sad to see that exploitation.”

McMillan said his consulting group encounters many international families looking for guidance obtaining admission to top colleges. He said his group focuses on helping students target, identify, and gain entrance to schools that are the best fit for them.

A Harvard spokesperson said that assistance from a private counselor is not necessarily helpful in gaining admission to the College.

“While it is certainly possible that in individual cases an admissions consultant can be helpful to an applicant, we have encountered no evidence to indicate that is the case generally.  More importantly, our process—and the very wide range of information we collect about applicants—is designed to give us the broadest possible view of their qualifications, regardless of whether they used a consultant or not,” the spokesperson, Jeff Neal, wrote in a statement to The Crimson.

The Zimny suit brings to light the great lengths wealthy international students and their parents will go to gain admissions to top U.S. colleges. Private counselors can be a great boon to these families, who know little about the intricacies of the U.S. college admissions process, but the price tag on these advisers can be astronomical.

Michael Goran, director of IvySelect College Consulting, has worked with students from China in the college admissions process.

“It is definitely more hand-holding with international students,” he said. The millions that the Chows said they paid sounded unusual to Goran, though. He said that a comprehensive package for private educational consultants typically costs $5,000 to $6,000. Prices above $15,000, he said, are very rare. Zimny and his attorney John Fitzpatrick could not be reached for comment.

—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at eauritt@college.harvard.edu.

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