Independent Consultants: Preserving Your Reputation in an Age of Greed

An independent consultant allegedly swindled a family out of $2 million. What can you do to preserve the industry's reputation?

A Boston-based educational consultant recently made headlines when a couple from Hong Kong accused him of swindling them out of more than $2 million. Gerald and Lily Chow's lawsuit alleges that Mark Zimny took an exorbitant amount of money from them in exchange for the promise that he could secure their two sons' admission at an Ivy League school, preferably Harvard, by pulling strings with insiders. They also claim that Zimny told them any donations they wanted to make to a school should go through him to circumvent development offices' racial prejudices against Asians.

The Chows were initially enticed by Zimny's seemingly impressive credentials and Harvard connections, which, by the time they hired him, were tenuous as best. But over time they became suspicious and discovered that he was overcharging them and hadn't been making donations with their funds as promised. Now they're taking him to court in hopes of recovering their money.

Despite the purported malfeasance of their educational consultant, the Chows' sons did get into excellent schools, but they did not end up at Harvard. Several news outlets are calling this case a cautionary tale for parents and their children, but educational consultants should also take heed. One bad apple won't spoil the bunch, but this incident may have others in the profession worried that their collective reputation has been sullied. I believe you can instead use it as a learning opportunity and a chance to revisit industry guidelines as well as your own personal professional standards.

There are no guarantees

Should these shameful allegations prove true, then Zimny's biggest offense, aside from taking $2 million from a hard-working family, was making the promise that he could get the boys into Harvard. Last year, the illustrious school's admission rate was the lowest in the Ivy League, according to The Harvard Crimson, with an all-time low of just 6.2% of applicants being offered admission for the Class of 2015. That means only 2,158 of the record-breaking 34,950 applicants received a fat envelope, making Zimny's claims of guaranteed admission all the more preposterous.

Mark Sklarow, Executive Director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), recently blogged about the case and pointed out the various warning signs the Chows should have watched for. Guaranteeing admission to any school is a huge red flag and is in direct conflict with IECA's professional standards.

When meeting with families, make sure they are aware that an educational consultant's job is to help students find the best schools for their interests, qualifications, and abilities. They should understand that getting a student into his or her top choice school is certainly among your goals but is by no means an absolute. Guaranteed admission at an Ivy League school is an unreasonable expectation, and families should be leery of any counselor who claims it is within the scope of their services.

Maintain your bona fides

It's important to note that Zimny was not a member of IECA, a fact which would have further raised the Chows' suspicions had they been aware of the importance of membership in such professional groups. The requirements for membership in organizations such as IECA and NACAC are rigorous, and they do a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff. According to Mark Sklarow, just 10% of people claiming to be educational consultants are accepted as IECA members, and NACAC maintains a strict code of conduct spelled out in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

Membership in these organizations signals to your clients that you are held to a higher standard. When working with families who are shopping around for an educational consultant, point them to IECA's 12 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Independent Educational Consultant. You might even consider asking yourself these questions periodically and making sure your answers are evident on your website and in any other marketing materials. Anything you can do to help distinguish yourself from charlatans like the Chows' regrettably chosen "consultant" will help strengthen your reputation as well as that of your colleagues.

What are your thoughts on this recent scandal, and what steps do you take to garner and maintain your clients' trust?

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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