SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Imagine sacrificing Sundays to bone up on English and science. Plenty of kids are doing just that to get into the college of their dreams.

“It’s my life goal to go to an Ivy League School,” one girl told KPIX.

Another said, “your college pretty much … helps you … where you’ll end up in the future.”

The road to higher education can be brutal. Most students who apply to elite universities are rejected.

But one tutoring center claims to have a secret weapon — an exclusive algorithm, a special formula. You plug in a dozen variables and the software crunches the odds outputting a customized learning program that pinpoints exactly what a student needs to do to get accepted.

Steven Ma spent years on Wall Street as a hedge fund analyst. He once placed bets on commodities. Now he bets on students. Ma runs an operation called ThinkTank Learning — a chain of tutoring centers in California and China.

“We have a very accurate model… we know how to best use your time” Ma claims.

The standard program costs $4,000 per year. But, if your child’s chance of getting into a good college is risky and you’re willing to pay more, Ma offers a money-back guarantee.

“We give 100 percent of the money you pay back to you,” Ma promises.

The asking price: $10,000 to $60,000. And, in at least one VIP case, a family paid Ma $700,000.

“We put our money where our mouth is,” one father who would not agree to have his name used told us.

Victor Chen’s parents paid Ma $10,000 to guarantee their straight-A student son got into Cal.

“I was missing certain things like I didn’t have that many internships, I didn’t really know how to position myself in business school … Steven taught me a bunch of things,” Chen says.

Not everyone buys Ma’s premise.

Amy Jarich, director of admissions at U.C. Berkeley, says kids get into elite schools like Cal because they earn it and because it’s a good fit. She advises prospective students to “be engaged, be authentic.”

“There is no algorithm, there is no magic equation,” Jarich says.

However, one parent we talked to wants to hedge his bets.

“I want to invest a little bit more money now instead of regrets later on.”

Ma says the price of his service is determined by the algorithm and the individual student’s odds. On average, since Ma started offering his money-back guarantee, he has kept an average of 85 percent of the fees.

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