May 14, 2019

Amid National Controversy, Austin For-Profit College Consulting Firm Going Strong

Reporting Texas

Speakers talk at a seminar at the Berkeley2 Academy on April 20, 2019. Isaiah Zaragoza/Reporting Texas

Before attending Berkeley2 Academy, Rhea Jain struggled with the reading comprehension part of the SAT.

In fact, 15-year-old Jain said, “English in general” was a challenge because Hindi is her first language. Now, she said, “we’re halfway through it, and my score has already gone up 200 points. I’m really hoping that after a little more pushing, it can go up another 200 points by the end of the semester.”

Jain and hundreds of other students attend Berkeley2 Academy, a for-profit college consulting firm in Austin, to raise their SAT scores and polish their college applications. The academy offers SAT/ACT prep, personalized tutoring and college admission package programs aimed at boosting students’ chances of getting accepted in their targeted schools. The most expensive package costs $20,000.

The cost is far from the fees charged — up to $6.5 million, according to criminal charges — by William “Rick” Singer, the California-based college counselor, to get students admitted to preferred colleges. Authorities have charged Singer with arranging for clients to cheat on tests and bribing admission officials — placing Singer at the center of a college admissions scandal that has made national headlines and intensified questions about equity in the admissions process.

College admissions counselors acknowledge that for-profit college consulting businesses create their own set of ethics questions.

“How do you create equity in a process that can tend to favor those who have the means to seek out the help?” said Micah Lyles, president of Texas Association for College Admissions Counseling. “I don’t know that any of us have answers to that yet, but I do know that it’s something that everyone … is really working to come up with solutions.”

Participants listen to a seminar at the Berkeley2 Academy on April 20, 2019. Isaiah Zaragoza/Reporting Texas

One of the popular college admissions programs at Berkeley is called the “Gateway Program,” which helps students prepare five college applications, college admissions essays, scholarship essays, resume polishing, personalized college counseling and interview preparation, said Emily Hong, co-founder of Berkeley2 Academy. There is also the “Master Strategy Package” which gives students unlimited access to SAT or ACT prep classes, 20 hours of one-on-one tutoring and a head-start to classes before the 9th grade year.

Berkeley2 Academy declined to release their prices due to competition from similar college consulting firms. Test prep centers such as Kaplan and Princeton Review’s SAT prep services range anywhere from $274 to $1,299 dollars.

For Jain, the academy has helped her boost her SAT scores and also improve her performance in school. She said she liked how the instructors would go over concepts in class, test students and review questions missed by the class to reinforce the learning.

“They taught me little tricks that I picked up on, and I’ve been using that now at school and in standardized testing,” Jain said. “It all adds up.”

Samagra Jain, no relation to Rhea, is a chemical engineering sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin. Samagra Jain took Berkeley2 Academy’s SAT prep course for 10 weeks — eight hours on Saturdays — during the fall of his junior year. He got a perfect SAT score on his first try, but Jain concedes that the academy doesn’t offer the affordable options for low-income students.

Lyles said there’s no denying that people with more money will get more resources.

Participants listen to a seminar at the Berkeley2 Academy on April 20, 2019. Isaiah Zaragoza/Reporting Texas

A couple of organizations monitor ethical practices, but the choice is “up to the individual consulting firm or test prep company,” Lyles said. “There are programs that exist now for certification, specifically for college counseling, but it’s something that’s not necessarily regulated across the country.”

Berkeley2 Academy offers free seminars every year to educate people who cannot afford their services on how college admissions work in the U.S., Hong said.

“We update them on any kind of college admission trends or news they should be aware of because the landscape is always changing from year to year with college admissions,” Hong said. “We stay for hours afterwards because a lot people have questions afterwards.”

Hong said she has been a member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and that Berkeley2 “far exceeds any ethical standards placed upon us and enforced by any of these institutions.”

Berkeley2 takes “pride in our success through producing real results that students verify with their official standardized test scores and with their real college admission results,” Hong said.

When the company started in 2009, it had about 50 students, Hong said. Now, across three different locations, more than 500 students attend its summer SAT/ACT programs. During the past 10 years, more than 60 Berkeley2 students got acceptance letters to Ivy League universities, and it produced 400 National Merit semifinalists and 40 students who got perfect scores on the SAT and ACT tests, Hong added

“It is our job to boost a student’s chance to get into these top colleges by first correctly informing them of how college admission works, and secondly, helping them brand themselves so that they stand out in the competition,” Hong said. “We help them step by step in accomplishing their goals.”