As he tells it, Jamie Beaton found his way to Harvard after applying to 25 universities in the U.S. and U.K. But the New Zealander says he had no guidance on how to get into an elite college, and he had to find that path himself.
He sensed a business opportunity.
So in 2013, at age 17, he and a partner gathered up some college friends and launched a new venture: a consulting service for international students seeking to attend elite American universities. Beatonís employees would be tutors. They would help students craft college essays or mentor them through practice ACT and SAT tests.
Beaton touts his company, Crimson Education, as a booming success. The company says it has raised $20 million from investors, has grown in value to $260 million and employs thousands of tutors to help its international clientele and U.S. students as well.
But as Crimson Educationís fortunes have grown, along with Beatonís, critics have questioned the effectiveness of its business model. Crimson pairs high school students with tutors who are held out as qualified consultants, even though they are often just college students themselves.
When USA TODAY examined Crimson Educationís record, the review found:
► The company publicly claims a near 100% success rate in getting clients into their top school, but that assertion is based on clients being accepted to at least one of multiple schools to which they applied.
► Its website lists offices around the globe, complete with phone numbers, but reporters who visited locations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London found no one at desks in the offices ó and in one case, no sign Crimson had ever been there. Calls to the listed numbers often rang without answer, or calls were cut off abruptly.
► Crimson claims membership in college advisersí associations, which are designed to signal that companies adhere to training and ethics standards in an unregulated industry. But reporters found the company overstated how many of its employees had taken the training to be part of these groups. In one case, Crimsonís membership had expired at an association, and Crimson later said its one employee enrolled was checking his membership.
Crimson Education defends its use of college-age tutors, saying their recent admissions experience makes them more relatable mentors. The company insists its methods mean students are more likely than the general population to get into selective institutions.
ďFor us, the most important thing is how well the person is able actually to interact with the student and get consistent outcomes,Ē Beaton said in an hour-long interview with USA TODAY. He said the company rigorously recruits and trains tutors, and starts working with its high school clients early enough to "develop and build real skills."
Crimson officials said the company has "educational strategists" on staff who have stronger backgrounds in education to support tutors. And company officials downplayed the lack of staffed offices, saying many clients prefer to contact Crimson online. The company has locations in Auckland, Shanghai, and other locations with more staff on site.
The unregulated world of college counseling services has come under increased scrutiny, particularly in the wake of a celebrity-fueled college admissions bribery scandal driven by Rick Singer, the mastermind of Varsity Blues. Singer and others working with him doctored student records, paid off college coaches and arranged for clients to cheat the ACTs and SATs, according to federal authorities who have prosecuted him, celebrity clients and others. He now awaits sentencing for fraud, while parents and others caught in his crimes serve time in prison or are still facing their own charges.
Neither Beaton nor his company has been accused of illegal activities. But the questions surrounding his company demonstrate the issues that parents and their children face as they navigate the competitive, less-than-transparent universe of college admissions and contemplate hiring consultants Ė legitimately in many cases Ė that may help pave the way to elite schools.
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Crimson Education told USA TODAY it charges between $5,000 to $10,000 in U.S. currency for sessions with tutors. Mostly through video chat, the tutors help high school students prep for admissions tests, fill out applications and choose a university. Crimsonís fees are roughly the same as what U.S. families might pay for a package of in-person sessions with masterís level tutors who have been advising students for years. Families who choose Crimson may pay less if they select only hourly tutoring services, and the company said about 15% of its clients receive a discount.