"We are destroying American higher education piece by piece," says ‘Steve', an education consultant in Shanghai. Steve, whose job is essentially ghostwriting college application essays for Chinese students, declined to give his real name, citing the blatant illegal nature of his job and his father's work in admissions at an American university.
He is referring to the practice of shepherding students past the pearly white gates of Western college campuses, which has been a lucrative business in China for more than two decades. His is but one part in a system that will go as far as providing completely fake applications – for the right price – all under the auspices of "mentorship".
The failings of this industry are problematic for both Chinese students sent abroad, despite not speaking enough English to get by, and the universities that host them. This predicament has been covered extensively in the international press. On the ground in Shanghai, there are a handful of start-ups that claim to wear the white hat, selling "ethical mentorship" and "100% academic honesty" to students who want to do the work.
But when a competitive edge on college admissions still comes with a price tag, how much room is there for ethics?
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
When New Oriental was formed in 1993, it was the first of its kind. Founded by Yu Minhong, an English teacher at Peking University, the idea was simple enough: sell TOEFL and GRE exam preparation classes to Chinese students who coveted an education abroad. Cut to 2018 and the company is the biggest private education provider in China, publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and Yu is worth 1.9 billion USD.
The success of New Oriental was seen by many as an opportunity, and the pursuit of fast cash just as quickly led to bad practices. Why teach someone to write an essay when it's easier and more profitable to write it for them?
"This industry has sprung up for people looking to make money rather than looking to make a real impact on children," says Asher Genoot, founder and CEO of Curio, a company with the written mission to: "restore transparency and integrity to the study abroad process." At 24, Genoot looks a bit like a student himself, but speaks in business lingo, peppering his conversation with phrases like "high impact" and "make it scalable". He's been in the industry since 2015, first as a founding partner of Ivy Crest Institute, for high school students who want to study abroad, and now as the founder of Curio.
Genoot breaks down the problematic business model used by most agencies in Shanghai: a student is taken on as a mentee for a large sum of money, say 100,000rmb. The agency guarantees the student will get into one of their top schools or they'll be refunded the majority of their payment. Even if 20% of the students get into a top school, and the agency must refund a portion of the other 80%, the sheer volume makes the economics worth it. They are still making money. A lot of money.
A Rubber Duck in an Olympic Swimming Pool
A 2011 New York Times story about Chinese students at the University of Delaware who got in with fraudulent applications inspired Greg Nance to enter the industry. As a Gates Scholar at Cambridge, Nance's mandate was to "make the world a better place through education."
His solution was Dyad, a digital mentorship program, launched in 2012 in Shanghai. Built on a "freemium" model, all content is accessible online for students to follow on their own. This is supplemented by students who pay (from 8,300 to 48,500rmb) for a one-on-one mentorship program, which all claim to be 100% academically honest. Dyad is not the only mission-driven agency with a passionate CEO who claims to be selling the fishing pole, not the fish. Others include Ingenious Prep, Palm Drive and Genoot's Curio.
Still there's distrust that the mentorship companies like these are offering are all above-the-board, especially among jaded industry veterans like Steve. The truth is there is no way to really know. What we do know is these programs run on a different model: they're selective, meaning they interview students before taking them on, making sure their English lines up with their TOEFL score. They also don't make guarantees and don't offer performance-based refunds.
These alternatives may become more popular as top universities in the U.S. up the ante, requesting a taped interview along with student's personal essays. "They get to see the student communicating with a native English speaker, just like the student would have to do with their professors and classmates when they arrive on campus," says Guy Sivan. Sivan is the CEO of Vericant, a company in Shanghai that conducts and records these interviews. Vericant acts as a fourth party in this equation, offering another way to combat the pervasive cheating problem.
In his time in China, Nance says he's seen a growth in honest companies but acknowledges cheating is still the norm. "I have seen change, but it's like a rubber duck in an Olympic swimming pool. It's going to be a long battle."
It's late October and application season is in full swing. This is when Steve's job gets hard. Dark circles hang under his eyes. He's staying at the office late each night when he'd much rather be at home playing video games. Most of his students have missed deadlines, neglecting to send drafts of their personal essays for him to "edit." Time is short. At this pace, he will have one week to write 40 essays for 18 students applying for the November 1 early decision deadline. He explains, indignantly, "When push comes to shove, you've got a parent paying a good amount of money for a product and you've got to deliver."