One Chinese couple is suing an American company for promising to get their children into a selective college, and then failing to deliver, or apparently do much of anything:

According to an article by Mary Carmichael in the Boston Globe:

To Gerald and Lily Chow, education consultant Mark Zimny must have seemed like the answer to many parents’ prayer: Please let my child get into Harvard University.

The Chows, who lived in Hong Kong, knew little about the US educational system, but they did know that they wanted an Ivy League education for their sons. And they had money to spend on consultants like Zimny, who, they believed, could help make the dream come true.

Zimny, whom they met in 2007, had credentials. He had worked as a professor at Harvard. He ran an education consultancy, IvyAdmit. And he had a plan to help the Chows’ two sons, then 16 and 14.

Now the “I can get your child into a selective college” promise is not, in and of itself, necessarily a cause for concern. About a quarter of parents of “high achieving” high school students admit to using consultants to help improve their children’s admissions chances. What should perhaps have been a red flag here was the odd nature of the agreement.

Zimny, who between 2001 and 2005 worked as a lecturer and visiting assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, promised to help get the Chow boys into Harvard, in order to do this, however–in addition to the tutoring and help with the applications–he planned to help the Chows with their donations, arguing that “embedded racism” made colleges reluctant to accept donations from Asians, so it was better if they just paid Zimny and then his company could help channel the money to the right places (despite making up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, Asians constitute some 21 percent of the Harvard student body; if there’s an inherent prejudice it doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact).

You can guess how this turned out.

The Chows became suspicious when Gerald Chow announced plans to donate $1 million to Stanford University in his mother’s name. Zimny apparently said no, arguing that all money had to go through him.

In total the Chows say they gave Zimny $2.2 million. Neither of their children went to Harvard. While Zimny apparently did some work for the Chows, he didn’t always make the donations he said he was making, while he did make numerous real estate investments during the time the Chows were giving him money.

The Chows now say that their former admissions counselor “lied to them repeatedly, committing fraud, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and several other transgressions.”

Zimny lawyers say that the agreement was “nebulous.” They also maintain that “common law counts do not serve as an insurance policy for poor judgment, avarice, or any other of many human failings.”

Well obviously Zimny can’t be held legally responsible for the children not getting into Harvard, but he either did or did not make the donations to academic institutions that he said he was going to make.

According to the Globe article, the two Chow children were eventually admitted to “top” schools. Zimny’s role in that outcome, however, is a little unclear.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer