Money, money, money.

The incentive for most people doing unethical things is generally money. Yes, to meet the “self-interest”, we usually prefer to take the money and be less ethical. Like I mentioned before, I have been working in an education consulting company in China for 2 years. And I quit last year because of some unusual experience.

This industry is very profitable right now, mostly due to the increasing need of counselor service, but also the specific target customers — high income families. In China, education cost is usually the largest portion for family budget, and parents are willing to paid more than 50% of their income as long as their children(child in most cases) get the best possible education. Our clients were willing to pay more than $25,000 for individual counseling service. However, as the counselor, what are the responsibilities? Usually the service included school selection, personal statement brainstorming, resume modification and so on. Instead of help the students to do the application, the company is trying to build up a real mentoring relationship between students and counselors. This new methodology worked out perfectly and convinced most family that their kids are educated during the process as well. As the industry’s leader, the company I worked for only take 300 students a year, and there were usually more than 1,000 students applying. The so-called “application process” soon was converted to an “auction”, at least in my opinion. If you are not the top students, you simply need to pay more to get in. There were students paying more than $50,000 for the service. At the same time, if you pay more, the consultants were willing to write the personal statements for you. In the grey area of college application, every single thing on the application checklist has a price.

The day before I quit, I met a family with my colleague in the office. After the consulting, we recognized that the student can hardly write or speak English. While we were trying to convince the family that our service might not be a good choice for the son, the father put a business case on the table. He opened it, and there is more than half million Yuan in the case. Clearly, that was the price he willing to pay, and clearly, after “negotiated” with the management team, the kid got in. I saw the smile on my partner’s face, as ten percent of the money was paid as commission to us, which is nearly $5,000 for each of us. The money, cash in fact, really shocked me a while. Somehow I felt like a drug dealer, just finished some illegal transaction. I can still hardly forget the smile of my colleague. He graduated from ivy 2 years ago. And he is making more than $100,000 by being a consultant. We were really good friends after work, and he is a nice and smart guy. He just became someone I was not familiar with at that moment. So I quit, right after. I think people were losing themselves in the company. They were all brilliant people, and usually drew all the right decisions. But when those amount of money was in front of you, you just couldn’t say no. At least they failed to do so.

I thought it was about education, but it turned out to be more about how to cheat the system. Trust between colleges and students are breaking down. How much does $5,000 means to a college graduate? What about $50,000? What is your price?

PS: the featured picture is not that half million Yuan.


9 thoughts on “Money, money, money.

  1. It’s frustrating to hear about issues like this where people use money to get ahead. I’m very impressed by your good judgment to get out when you realized the corruption that was occurring. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to turn down so much money based on principle. This decision will definitely stick with you, though. As we all graduate and move into the professional world, I think we’ll be faced with issues like this more often than we expect. It’s important to remain true to your morals and always do what you think is right.
    Great job, Xin.

  2. This was definitely an interesting story to read about. It is so unfortunate to hear about how greed and money manipulates people. Your experience occurred while you were in China; however, the whole world suffers from this issue. I really admire your decision to leave the organization after you saw how much your friend’s personality had changed. Here is an article about an ex-Bucknell student that I think you may really enjoy. Let me know what you think about it since the premise revolves around money and greed.

  3. I found your story very interesting. It is a shame how some people are able to buy shortcuts like this, but at the same time I think it happens more than we think. I’m sure there are similar cases in the U.S when in comes to getting kids into top private schools. I grew up getting a sub-par public school education and I definitely think it put me at a disadvantage compared to other kids coming to Bucknell. People always say money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a better education.

    • It can buy you access to a better education. But there is still room for initiative and talent.

      Some colleges are moving away form the SAT or making it optional precisely because it correlates so highly to family wealth (and it was mean to be a neutral metric of ability).

  4. This is a very compelling story. It not only deals with the difficult moral decision that you made in favor of fair education over monetary gain, but also the cultural bent towards education in China. I always knew that the Chinese placed high emphasis on education for members of families to become prosperous, functioning members of society. But your question – how much does your education cost? – really tries to pinpoint a price. For the family you worked with, it was over 500,000 Yuan. By my calculations, at 6.21 Yuan per 1 US Dollar, that is over $5 million!

  5. If education is really about education, then we should not put a price tag on it at all. Bucknell has its annual tuition at over $50,000 mark. The financial aid and scholarships, supposedly match the intellectual capabilities of a person. In other words, the smarter you are, the less money you pay. In case of this company, smarter students have lower price-lines. Additionally, based on how I understood it, the services of this consulting company are not restricted to a limited group of people, but are rather widely-available.

    Isn’t the Xin’s company somewhat similar to, lets say, Bucknell? Why is it moral in one case but not in the other?

  6. That must have been a difficult decision as you were younger then your co-workers. Moreover, you clearly value education as a meritocratic endeavor. In other words, the best of education is about what students and teachers are capable of due to ability, hard work, community, creativity, and so on.

    The counseling services, in the best case, can be an extension of that process.

    However, as you describe, greed can cloud or pervert the mission.

    One point to make is that while the father and the counselor may feel this is a purely mutually beneficial arrangement, there are hidden costs. Firstly, what if the student doesn’t get into an American college? or does and fails soon? What good was the service then? And, if the firm’s reputation depends, as it does I imagine, on formal and informal (word of mouth) reputation, then what happens when these stories erode its reputation? What if American colleges avoid applicants from this service? What if top students avoid the service? THen, it is easy to imagine, that to stay competitive, the counselors will do more and more of the application to try to bolster a flagging reputation. Or, they start cutting prices to attract students. Either one can push it into a death spiral. If the prices drop, the psychology of pricing could start to affect clients: if this is so valuable, why is the prices dropping? More and more students or colleges avoid the service.

    Secondly, the service is at some level invested in the process of higher education as a process of finding human talent and not merely willingness to pay. The deontological or Kantian perspective is that it is unethical to act in a way that if all acted that way, irrationality ensues. In short, undercutting the system with bribery and corruption makes the whole system less valuable. If everyone applying to college could simply pay to get it, then the value of higher education would erode. It is like pissing in your own well.

    Thirdly, what about the cost to the counselor? If he goes to his professors at his ivy league school and justifies his actions, would he feel comfortable? Could he explain to other clients that paying more gets you the service? Could he write an article in a Chinese newspaper justifying his actions? One test of ethics is if it is an action you can take pride in explaining openly, then it is ethical. This is akin to virtue ethics- what would the ideal counselor say in response to his choices.

    Ok, last point. If there are 1,000 applicants for 350 slots, there is excess supply. So, prices should fall or competitors enter the marketplace. If you enter it, can you market yourself as the “real” service that is about the relationship and the process and NOT about a corrupting pay-to-play scheme?

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