As he tells it, Jamie Beaton found his way to Harvard after applying to 25 universities in the U.S. and U.K. But the New Zealander says he had no guidance on how to get into an elite college, and he had to find that path himself.
He sensed a business opportunity.
So in 2013, at age 17, he and a partner gathered up some college friends and launched a new venture: a consulting service for international students seeking to attend elite American universities. Beaton’s employees would be tutors. They would help students craft college essays or mentor them through practice ACT and SAT tests.
Beaton touts his company, Crimson Education, as a booming success. The company says it has raised $20 million from investors, has grown in value to $260 million and employs thousands of tutors to help its international clientele and U.S. students as well.
But as Crimson Education’s fortunes have grown, along with Beaton’s, critics have questioned the effectiveness of its business model. Crimson pairs high school students with tutors who are held out as qualified consultants, even though they are often just college students themselves.
When USA TODAY examined Crimson Education’s record, the review found:
► The company publicly claims a near 100% success rate in getting clients into their top school, but that assertion is based on clients being accepted to at least one of multiple schools to which they applied.
► Its website lists offices around the globe, complete with phone numbers, but reporters who visited locations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London found no one at desks in the offices — and in one case, no sign Crimson had ever been there. Calls to the listed numbers often rang without answer, or calls were cut off abruptly.
► Crimson claims membership in college advisers’ associations, which are designed to signal that companies adhere to training and ethics standards in an unregulated industry. But reporters found the company overstated how many of its employees had taken the training to be part of these groups. In one case, Crimson’s membership had expired at an association, and Crimson later said its one employee enrolled was checking his membership.
Crimson Education defends its use of college-age tutors, saying their recent admissions experience makes them more relatable mentors. The company insists its methods mean students are more likely than the general population to get into selective institutions.
“For us, the most important thing is how well the person is able actually to interact with the student and get consistent outcomes,” Beaton said in an hour-long interview with USA TODAY. He said the company rigorously recruits and trains tutors, and starts working with its high school clients early enough to "develop and build real skills."
Crimson officials said the company has "educational strategists" on staff who have stronger backgrounds in education to support tutors. And company officials downplayed the lack of staffed offices, saying many clients prefer to contact Crimson online. The company has locations in Auckland, Shanghai, and other locations with more staff on site.
The unregulated world of college counseling services has come under increased scrutiny, particularly in the wake of a celebrity-fueled college admissions bribery scandal driven by Rick Singer, the mastermind of Varsity Blues. Singer and others working with him doctored student records, paid off college coaches and arranged for clients to cheat the ACTs and SATs, according to federal authorities who have prosecuted him, celebrity clients and others. He now awaits sentencing for fraud, while parents and others caught in his crimes serve time in prison or are still facing their own charges.
Neither Beaton nor his company has been accused of illegal activities. But the questions surrounding his company demonstrate the issues that parents and their children face as they navigate the competitive, less-than-transparent universe of college admissions and contemplate hiring consultants – legitimately in many cases – that may help pave the way to elite schools.
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Crimson Education told USA TODAY it charges between $5,000 to $10,000 in U.S. currency for sessions with tutors. Mostly through video chat, the tutors help high school students prep for admissions tests, fill out applications and choose a university. Crimson’s fees are roughly the same as what U.S. families might pay for a package of in-person sessions with master’s level tutors who have been advising students for years. Families who choose Crimson may pay less if they select only hourly tutoring services, and the company said about 15% of its clients receive a discount.
Investors have poured millions into the company, which plans to continue its expansion into Asia. It also has plans to start a global, online high school.
“I have been and remain a great fan of Jamie Beaton,” billionaire hedge fund pioneer Julian Robertson, a Crimson financial backer, said in a statement relayed by his spokesman, Fraser Seitel.
The chaotic world of college consulting
Anyone with a surface understanding of the American university system can market themselves as a “college consultant.” There’s no single regulatory group that ensures consultants meet a set of standards.
In part, that’s due to the nature of American college admissions. After nearly 400 years of American higher education, the admissions process is opaque, with no guarantees and myriad exceptions. There's no unified system to determine who gets into which university, and why some people get into the “good” ones and others don’t.
Universities that would accept one student one year might not do so the next year, due to class-size limitations or increased academic competition among their peers. A college may be looking to diversify its student body, or maybe it’s trying to recruit more international students.
Whatever the explanation, universities need not disclose the reason any given student wasn’t admitted. So self-proclaimed college consultants may offer what they claim are the answers, backed with testimonials and stats, for a hefty price.
And thousands of people are making that claim, both in the U.S. and overseas.
The less-experienced consultants may include recent college graduates or parents who successfully got their child into a highly selective college, and therefore believe they can help others do the same. The more experienced ones often have a graduate-level education and former careers working in the admissions offices of the nation’s top schools. The thinking goes: They know what the colleges are looking for, so they can tell parents what their children should do.
Crimson advisers, however, are often students themselves or recent graduates of selective institutions. Some of Crimson's hires have been 17- or 18-year-old college freshmen. Beaton argues their lack of professional experience gives them an edge. After all, they’ve recently navigated college admissions themselves.
“It’s definitely more meaningful than someone who hasn’t been through the process for the last 20 years,” Beaton told USA TODAY, in an evident dig at more experienced college advisers.
The company said its "educational strategists" are full-time staff with more experience in the field. They help map out for the student which courses to take and where to apply. In all, Crimson says it has about 220 full-time staff members, with another 2,400 tutors and mentors.
Here’s what that tutoring looks like: Crimson sessions take place almost entirely online. Students work with a team of up to five people who help with test prep and advise where and how the students should apply to college. The services are pretty standard for college advising companies.
Crimson tries to set itself apart through its use of technology. Students connect with their mentors via the Crimson app, which also serves as a sort of hub for application deadlines. And the company uses a “psychometric algorithm” that pairs students with their advisers based on personality and interest, among other things.
Beaton has said the company uses an algorithm created by J. Galen Buckwalter, the man behind a similar tool used at eHarmony. Buckwalter declined to speak to USA TODAY and instead directed questions to Beaton.
Making millions – and being known for it
Crimson started after Beaton had successfully completed a college application marathon, applying and receiving admittance to 25 selective universities, many of them American Ivy League colleges. He and co-founder Sharndré Kushor say they conceived the idea for the company as high schoolers, following a trip to a model United Nations conference in 2013.
Beaton secured funding from investors like Robertson, an American hedge fund giant best known for founding highly successful Tiger Management. Beaton worked with Robertson as a financial analyst while studying at Harvard.
Rapid growth has always been important to Beaton. In a 2016 profile, Beaton mentioned his desire to be like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who also attended (though later dropped out of) Harvard.
“It feels very close,” he told the New Zealand publication, Stuff. “He's very inspirational to me."
In 2017, Beaton even wrote into New Zealand’s National Business Review, a business trade publication, asking to be included on its annual list of richest New Zealanders.
Crimson officials won't say whether the company has turned a profit yet, calling the detail “commercially sensitive information we do not disclose.” And Beaton declined to discuss the company's finances.
As it has grown, the company has become caught up in some legal entanglements. It fought with New Zealand media outlets to keep details of a business deal gone sour under wraps, a fight the company ultimately lost. And the company is being sued for "breach of contract" by the online education company Eurekly. Details from that suit are under seal.
American colleges 101
Crimson’s roots are in a country where college exclusivity isn’t a problem. To get into college, New Zealand students must only graduate from their high school, says Dennis Matene, who works at the University of Auckland and helps with admissions.
Some college programs may be more exclusive, but competition over spots at selective institutions generally doesn’t come into play. As such, private college consulting in New Zealand doesn't really exist. What's more, local high schools do offer free advising on local and international universities.
That’s true in some other countries, too – if students are content to go to college locally. But students eager to gain admission to U.S. colleges seek help for the seemingly labyrinthine application process of exams, recommendations, essays and leadership projects.
That’s where Crimson comes in. It markets its services to international students whose families are willing to pay top dollar for mostly online programs.
That other college advisers might have more experience or conduct services in person doesn’t matter to those clients, or hasn’t occurred to them.
Beaton and Kushor say their clients want a relatable mentor who has recently “walked the path” they themselves want to walk. Part of Beaton’s appeal – and, he says, his expertise – is his experience applying to 25 selective schools and getting into them all. Kushor attended the University of Auckland as an undergraduate and is now studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
Crimson declined to name any of its tutors or connect them with a reporter. Instead, it sent a handful of examples of tutors’ qualifications. One is “a MIT based tutor,” with degrees in math, computer science and music. Another nameless tutor is a Princeton graduate now pursuing a law degree at Yale.
One of Crimson’s former tutors is quite well known – as an Instagram influencer who swims with sharks, DJs and rides around in helicopters over New York City. But before setting off on his life of leisure, Max Key worked for Crimson, with a role that involved helping student-athletes get into American colleges. He also played a starring role in one of Crimson's YouTube videos, outlining a day in his posh life as a University of Auckland student.
Key also happens to be the son of New Zealand’s former prime minister, John Key.
Beaton has publicly professed his admiration of Prime Minister Key while defending the hiring of the younger Key as apolitical. “I don't really care if someone is Britney Spears,” Beaton told The New Zealand Herald. “I care about ability and talent.”
Beaton has since hired the senior Key as an advisory member for the company.
'What are their credentials as educators?'
Some former employees, in some cases still in their undergraduate careers, told USA TODAY they had questions about the company's academic training and other issues when they joined Crimson. Beaton told WBUR in 2018 he initially found “200 of the sharpest” students at Harvard for the company.
A former Crimson academic adviser, Zifan Yang, said in an interview that his training meant simply reading a company manual. Yang now works for another college consulting company, InGenius Prep.
Others said Beaton recruited them while they were at Harvard following a simple round of interviews. For many of them, Crimson was their first tutoring gig.
Beaton and Kushor, though, deny the idea their tutors might be underprepared to offer the kind of advising that would cost $10,000 per student. They say their tutors are rigorously screened and receive ongoing training.
“Crimson provides a platform for people who aren’t in the teaching arena,” Beaton said, “but have a sincere passion for that field and can give their knowledge, insight, and skills to that.”
Multiple college consultants told USA TODAY merely going to an elite school didn’t necessarily qualify them to advise others.
Dominique Padurano is a Harvard College graduate who in 2014 founded a New York City-based college admission consulting business called Crimson Coaching. (“Crimson” is Harvard’s official school color.) She says she earned a master’s degree in education and spent a decade in classrooms before launching her company.
Padurano questioned Crimson’s reliance on hiring current and former students of Ivy League universities and other top schools as tutors. “They might have gone to Harvard, but what are their credentials as educators?” she asked.
Some former tutors also said they wondered whether Crimson Education's price for services was justified.
Yang, who has dual master’s degrees in business and education, described Crimson as disorganized. He said the person who was assigned to train him didn’t get in touch until his second day on the job, and then provided less than 20 hours of training in all. As a result, Yang said he got most of his training by reading a Crimson job manual.
A former Crimson tutor who is a college undergraduate said the company would drive up the bill for its clients. (The ex-tutor asked not to be identified to avoid potential repercussions from Crimson.) The company would assign clients up to 20 sessions with an adviser, even though the tutor felt in many cases that much instruction was unnecessary.
Beaton denied that assertion. He said student success may require a lot of support, and the company is careful to "accurately assess" what a student needs. He also pushed back against the idea that Crimson was profit-motivated.
"We actually invest all of our profits back into the business to help develop more and more products, R&D and serve more students," he said.
This all might mean nothing if it was clear working with Crimson led to success. But the company’s results don’t offer clarity.
Crimson says it’s working with 2,000 students now, though that number is closer to 20,000 if you include those involved in its more traditional academic tutoring programs, many of them via existing tutoring companies Crimson has acquired over the years. It has plans to open an online high school that will charge $15,000 in U.S. currency for full-time students, said Crimson spokeswoman Kimberly Scott. The instructors will be registered New Zealand teachers, she said.
On its website, Crimson claims to have helped its students secure more than 950 offers to “top 50 US universities,” and 193 of those were to the eight Ivy League schools.
Crimson originally declined to make any students available who recently went through the admissions process. Scott said the company felt the students were young and hadn’t gone through “the full college experience.” To ask them to do an on-the-record interview would be, she said, “a big ask to young students only just about to embark on their college journeys.”
(This sentiment, of course, describes Beaton when he founded Crimson – and many of the company's soon-to-be advisers and tutors.)
Crimson eventually did connect USA TODAY to Soumil Singh, a senior at Harvard. Singh is from New Zealand, and both of his parents are doctors. He said that since he was a kid, he had wanted to attend an American university. But he, like Beaton, said he wasn’t sure how to apply.
For instance, if he were applying to college in New Zealand, Singh said, he would have had to figure out his major before enrolling. In the U.S., most students are simply admitted to a college and then can choose any major. Crimson, he said, helped him to figure that out.
He declined to say how much his family paid for the company's services, on the advice of his parents. "What I can say is that pricing for us wasn't a big issue/push factor," he said.
Crimson advisers directed him to take more exams that are comparable to the Advanced Placement ones in the United States. They also helped with test prep. And his instructors? “They weren’t, like, qualified teachers,” Singh said. “They hadn’t gone to university for teaching, but they were extremely knowledgeable and effective.”
Crimson’s advisers understood his position, he said, and they seemed to have more experience with the exams since they had recently taken them.
Most of the tutoring took place online, though he did meet with an “exceptional mathematician” who wasn’t a student. As for whether he would have gotten into Harvard without Crimson’s help, Singh said it would have been “very challenging.”
“Fundamentally, it’s the student’s drive that really leverages the effectiveness,” he said. “And that’s sort of how I felt it go.”
Singh echoes many of the sentiments of the students Crimson puts on camera for its public YouTube channel with 100,000-plus subscribers. In these short videos, the students praise Crimson broadly and say the company is responsible for their college admittance.
The company also says its students have an acceptance rate near 100%. Scott said Crimson considers it a success if a student gets into at least one of eight or nine universities they have applied to.
Others in the college advisement business have more stringent standards. Collegewise and Top Tier Admissions, two national advisement companies, base their success rate on whether the students get into one of their top three universities.
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Hard to find, hard to reach
Until USA TODAY began its inquiries, Crimson Education claimed it was part of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the International Association for College Admission Counseling. They're trade groups made up of college consultants and university admissions officers.
Membership among these groups can signal a minimum amount of training and adherence to certain ethical standards. They can be a way to tell parents a consultant knows what they're doing and is familiar with the world of higher education. Because anyone can technically call themselves a college consultant, membership in one of the organizations can signal legitimacy.
But Crimson’s membership in NACAC expired in 2018 and hadn’t been renewed in 2019, the group told USA TODAY.
Crimson had said it was a "proud member" of both groups, but didn't give any indication if that meant all its tutors met the trade group's requirements. The company has since said only two members of their company were part of the IACAC, and one had been part of NACAC for 22 years.
Another way Crimson signaled its legitimacy as an international company: Its website said it had “offices” in more than a dozen countries around the world. What’s more, if a parent or student wanted to call, the company would have someone on the line – or at least that’s what the dozens of phone numbers on the company’s website appeared to suggest.
That wasn’t the experience of USA TODAY reporters. They visited the company’s locations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London and didn’t find a single person. In the New York case, the office lacked a sign or pamphlet materials – no indication at all that Crimson had ever been at the location. In a subsequent interview, Kushor said she and Beaton had previously worked there.
Good luck trying to reach Crimson over the phone. Depending on the country, callers might never make it through to a living person. Multiple calls to the line associated with the United States were not returned. In Johannesburg, the phone rang endlessly. Repeated calls to the number listed for the Edinburgh, London and Zurich offices produced a busy signal.
Crimson representatives explained a USA TODAY reporter had called that number at busy times, but said the phone number was accurate. For Johannesburg, Crimson officials said they updated the voicemail system following a reporter’s inquiry. More broadly, they said their customers are trying to reach them through the web.
Following USA TODAY’s inquiries, Crimson scrubbed its website. It no longer lists addresses for the Edinburgh, Dublin, Munich or Zurich locations.
Crimson’s “About” page no longer claims to be part of the national admissions counseling groups, but instead says the company “embodies the ethical and social responsiblity (sic) of the International and National Associations of College Admissions Counseling.”
The website still says on a separate page that Crimson is “proudly part of both the International and National Association for College Admission Counseling.”
None of this, though, may slow Crimson or the companies like it. Harvard’s acceptance rate recently fell to 4.5%, a new low. Yale’s rate is approximately 7%. Stanford is hovering at just above 4%. And so long as families are obsessed with highly selective colleges and the prestige they confer, the path is likely to get narrower.
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Correction: A previous version of this story gave incorrect information about one of Crimson's tutors. The tutor in question, whom the company declined to name, graduated from Princeton University and is getting a law degree at Yale. The story also included an incorrect number for the Ivy Leagues. There are eight Ivy League schools.
Contributing: Chris Woodyard, Kim Hjelmgaard and Elizabeth Weise
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College admissions: Harvard grad sells way to Ivy League universities