SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — It’s that time of year again; students working on applications for college. From navigating financial aid packages, to filling out applications and studying for the SAT, trying to get into one’s dream school is no simple task.

While college is already expensive, businesses such as Think Tank Learning are among many in a booming industry of coaches and counselors that offer help with the admission process. The company promises students an acceptance letter to any school the student shoots for.

Steven Ma of Think Tank Learning said his firm doesn’t just offer a college consulting service, but a money-back guarantee. He promises his clients acceptance to an agreed upon school for a fee that is based on the odds a student will get admitted to his or her desired college or university.

“The further you are away from the school…the more expensive the price,” he said.

A 100 percent money-back guarantee sounds like a good deal, but it doesn’t come cheap. Think Tank Learning’s college guarantees have run the gamut of prices from $8,000-$700,000, and that’s on top of what customers already paid for the consulting service. On average, Ma estimates the consulting fees cost around $8,000 per student. The firm boasts an 83 percent success rate for students getting into their top choice.

Ma believes, above all, that when it comes to applying for college, it is important for students to stand out.

“What I tell students when it comes to extracurricular activities…don’t do what everyone else does,” Ma said. Focusing on what most students don’t, Ma said, will make that applicant memorable.

While Think Tank Learning has already spread across the Bay Area with several locations and ensures well-educated and experienced tutors, some say they’re skeptical of college consulting businesses.

“I just don’t see how they can guarantee admission to a specific school,” said Mike Hughes, Director of Admission at the University of San Francisco.

“You’re talking about college access, you’re talking about academics, and a guarantee in my world treats it more like a consumer commodity,” he said.

But Ma thinks his work for his clients is worth it. His customers believe a degree from an elite university can open doors and Ma is assisting them on the way to get there.

“I’m not saying this is fair, society is not fair…for $8,000 we level the playing field,” Ma said.

For those who cannot afford to pay for coaching and counseling, there are non-profits that offer free college advising to first-generation students. They include First Graduate, Upward Bound and 826 Valencia.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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