A couple in Hong Kong is suing a Boston-area education consultant for the $2 million they say they paid him to get their two sons into top prep schools and, ultimately, an Ivy League university. The suit is seen by some as an example of an "arms race" in education.
Gerald and Lily Chow, citizens of Hong Kong, say they hired Mark Zimny and his company, IvyAdmit Consulting Associates in Cambridge, Mass. to help their two sons get into elite schools in the U.S.
"They decided in 2006 that their sons, First Son and Second Son, would benefit most by being educated in the top schools in the United States," says the lawsuit, first filed in 2010 with a U.S. district court in Massachusetts.
The Chows had determined that their "target university" was Harvard, the Boston Globe reported.
Their first son, then 15, graduated as a ninth grader from a junior boarding school in Deerfield, Mass. in June 2007.
The Chows say Zimny approached them at his graduation ceremony, claiming he was a professor at Harvard University, and that he could use his connections to help the sons get into New England boarding schools and Ivy League colleges.
The lawsuit says that Zimny made a number of false claims, including that he was a professor at Harvard.
"Zimny was never a Harvard professor; he had briefly been a visiting assistant professor and a lecturer, but any faculty relationship with Harvard had ended by June 30, 2005, two years before he met the Chows, the suit says.
John Fitzpatrick, an attorney representing Zimny, refuted the allegations in the lawsuit.
"As made clear in the public legal memoranda filed for Dr. Zimny in this case, he absolutely denies committing any fraud or other misconduct," Fitzpatrick told ABC News.
The Chows could not be reached for comment. Their attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The suit states that Zimny encouraged the Chows to entrust money to him, which he would then donate on their behalf to the universities to improve their admissions prospects.
"Zimny also claimed that because of 'embedded racism,' there is resistance among the schools from becoming 'too friendly with Asian donors,' and that there is 'an unwritten presumption that donations are expected from full-pay foreign students'," the suit states.
Suzanne Rheault, CEO and founder of Aristotle Circle, a tutoring and educational consulting company based in New York City, said whether or not the allegations are true, educational consulting is a burgeoning industry that has increasingly targeted families outside the U.S.
She said legitimate companies will never promise an outcome to a family.
Otherwise, "You're taking advantage of peoples' desperation and eagerness," she said.
She said her company has former admissions officers from Ivy League schools who don't charge "nearly the same" fees.
The Chows' fees started out at $4,000 a month for each child, excluding tuition and board, in exchange for tutoring, educational plans and other services.
The services were "very attractive" to the parents, "as their young sons would spend much of each year in the United States, with which the Chows were very unfamiliar and where they had no connections."
"Zimny, whom they had come to trust based on their interaction with him and his representations, including without limitation his representation that he was a Harvard professor, promised to watch over their sons to ensure not only their educational success but also their safety and assimilation in the United States," the suit says.
Eventually, the suit says, Zimny asked for a $1 million retainer for each child, which the Chows paid.
"Zimny represented that this $2 million retainer would be part of a big pool of money contributed by similar Asian, mainly Korean, families," the complaint states. "He stated that the purpose of this pool of money was to help their sons and daughters to gain admission to colleges of their choice in the United States."
Eventually, the relationship between the Chows and Zimny "began to deteriorate" in the summer of 2009. At that time, the Chows learned that Zimny had not been authorized to recruit for the Loomis Chaffee boarding school in Connecticut as they say he had claimed.
In the fall of 2009, the Chows claim Zimny requested they provide another $1 million for a development contribution to Stanford University.
Mr. Chow, however, said that he wanted to make the contribution in memory of his late mother. Zimny refused, "stating that the $1 million contribution had to be made through him." Chow did not make the contribution.
Zimny admits to accepting the $1 million fee for each son but argues in his motion to dismiss the suit that it "was proposed as an option and ultimately was chosen and later insisted on by the Chows."
A status conference is scheduled for mid-November, according to court documents, as the two-year-old case moves forward.
Rheault said it is common for families, especially families not familiar with the college admissions process, to seek professional guidance for their children's education and future, even paying thousands to do so.
With budget cuts at public schools, educators and guidance counselors have limited resources to help hundreds of students at a time. A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling from 2005 indicated that the average public high school student received about 38 minutes of college advising per year from their guidance counselor.
And with families from emerging markets like Brazil or China willing to spend more money, "getting into an Ivy League school has become an arms race," Rheault said.
The Boston Globe reports that the boys, not named in the lawsuits, eventually went to elite schools, just not Harvard.
"Who wants to take the accomplishment away from them?" she said. "As parents, whether they're wealthy or not, what parent doesn't want the best education for their kids?"