May 22, 2024


It's Your Education

Pegasus California School Sells Inside Track to Top US Universities to Chinese Elite

The Val Verde Unified School District, in the heart of Southern California’s Inland Empire, isn’t a bad place to get a public education, all things considered. It’s not as well heeled as some of the wealthier Los Angeles exurbs to the west, where districts can spend up to $21,000 a student — Val Verde budgets just over half that. And the majority of its 20,000 students come from low-income families and are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Still, Val Verde has an enviable 93% graduation rate, and the surrounding Riverside County sends the majority of its graduates to college. Last year, before the pandemic upended public education in California and around the US, a visitor to the district would’ve encountered three bustling public high schools struggling to meet the needs of a diverse population of over 6,000 teens.

But there would’ve been another high school, out of sight, that was different: Pegasus California School. It didn’t have to struggle. With around 160 students, its class sizes were significantly smaller than other Val Verde schools, and it offered dedicated evening study sessions overseen by faculty. The school guaranteed parents, in writing, that every graduate would gain admission to one of the top 100 US universities. Pegasus boasted of strong relationships with schools such as the University of California at Irvine, where students could participate in a summer program tailored for Pegasus students. According to Val Verde’s superintendent, UC Riverside was so impressed with the school that it took the extraordinary step of promising admission to every Pegasus graduate.

But for high schoolers in the district who might’ve wanted the benefit of Pegasus’ intensive, college-oriented curriculum, there was a hitch: Even though it was a part of an American public-school district, tuition and fees at Pegasus added up to more than $34,000 a year. And even though it was largely staffed by Val Verde teachers and administrators, it was actually a boarding school. And even though it conferred a Val Verde diploma to graduates, Pegasus California School was really a private academy exclusively serving Chinese students in Qingdao, China, a city of more than 9 million bordering the Yellow Sea, some 6,300 miles from Val Verde. How it got there, and how it leveraged the resources and personnel of a middling public-school district for the benefit of private investors and wealthy families halfway across the globe, is the story of one businessman’s quest to monetize American public education with the help of California’s most powerful education official.


The idea to transplant a nominally American public high school to China, charge elite parents private-school tuition, and promise them an inside track to the University of California system sprang from the mind of Steven Ma, a swaggering entrepreneur — some have called him a “huckster” and a “snake-oil salesman” — who has made and squandered millions catering to the educational needs and anxieties of the affluent. Pegasus charged foreigners for access to the trappings of the California public-school system — even though the moneyed boarding school lacked accreditation — while drawing on the resources of a struggling school district. The Val Verde logo appeared on the diplomas that Pegasus issued to graduates in China, but the tuition their parents paid benefited companies controlled by Ma and his investors.


“It is imperative that these serious allegations of misuse of state funds and conflict of interest…be reviewed by the appropriate outside agencies with authority to investigate this matter.”

An Insider investigation including interviews with more than a dozen current and former Pegasus employees, 14 students and parents, as well as education experts and sources affiliated with the Val Verde school district — in addition to more than a thousand pages of records provided by sources and obtained through records requests — has found that some of California’s highest-ranking education officials and leading public universities worked closely with Ma to help set up Pegasus and give its foreign students preferential treatment that seemed to elude American public-school students. California’s former top education official and a former state secretary of education were involved in the effort, as were senior Val Verde officials and a retired senior staffer within the University of California Office of the President, the headquarters of the UC system, who continued to work as as a contractor for the University of California at Irvine even as Pegasus was paying him to help its students gain admission.

The public servants, records show, gave Ma and his associates official state appointments and helped grease the skids to give Pegasus students a leg up in the increasingly cutthroat University of California admissions process. Not only did UC Irvine offer summer-school programs specially arranged for Pegasus students, it dispatched admissions staffers to the school’s China campus to talk to students and their parents, and specifically monitored Pegasus students’ progress through the admissions cycle. At UC Riverside, the ties were even closer: The university pledged to work with Pegasus students to help them become competitive applicants and offered them special permission to submit applications after the deadline had passed.

A metal seal of the Val Verde Unified School District is on a stone wall outside.

The Val Verde Unified School district in Riverside County, Calif., serves more than 6,000 high school students.

Christopher Vu for Insider

Val Verde’s superintendent publicly proclaimed that UC Riverside guaranteed admission to all Pegasus graduates, according to the minutes of a public-school board meeting. One former California education official described the arrangement, if it exists, as “appalling.”

In an interview, Ma said Pegasus students never received preferential treatment from California education officials, and said the notion that any Pegasus students were guaranteed admission to UC schools was “ridiculous and false.” He described Pegasus as a money-losing labor of love designed to foster cross-cultural understanding. “I personally don’t have much expectation financially from Pegasus… but I’ve grown attached to the legacy that Pegasus has built,” he said. “We have successfully sent over almost two hundred students from China to various colleges and universities and they are thriving… It’s actually pretty disheartening and sad to be portrayed as a snake-oil salesperson and a huckster, in your words, as I’m trying to do something nice to education.” He added: “I never once said or promised this is an inside track to the UC system.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President said that UC admissions staffers “routinely meet with high school counselors and other educators involved in the college application process to help clarify academic requirements and explain the admissions process.” They do not, the statement continued, “guarantee, nor would our campuses honor, any promise of admission. Applicants are evaluated based on a comprehensive review of their record…. It is concerning that an individual not affiliated with the UC system may have misrepresented those discussions without our knowledge or authorization.”

In response to Insider’s inquiries about Pegasus, a California Department of Education spokesman said the department has referred the matter to the state attorney general for investigation.

“State Superintendent [of Public Instruction Tony] Thurmond was not aware of these allegations before they surfaced in…Insider’s reporting, and asked the California Department of Education on May 6 to refer this matter to the state Attorney General’s office and the Fair Political Practices Commission for further review.

“It is imperative that these serious allegations of misuse of state funds and conflict of interest during or after the former Superintendent’s term, or whether the relationship between the school district and the Chinese school are legal, be reviewed by the appropriate outside agencies with authority to investigate this matter.”

A spokesperson for the California Fair Political Practices Commission said the referral was “under review” and declined to comment further. The state attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Val Verde Unified School District declined to comment for this story.

A copy of the Pegasus California School diploma with torn edges on the top and bottom

A copy of the Pegasus California School diploma shows that it was issued by the Val Verde Unified School District.

Val Verde Unified School District via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

On September 17, 2018, Brennan Burnett, an associate director in UCLA’s admissions department, received a strange email. It was from an assistant to Tom Torlakson, then California’s state superintendent of public instruction.

“I am writing to ask that some time be set up to introduce your university to a wonderful bi-national program,” the staffer wrote. “This is a joint venture between the Chinese Government and California Institutions seeking to help elevate the quality of scholastic endeavors taking place between the two nations.” Attached to the email was a letter on California Department of Education letterhead from Torlakson, who applauded Pegasus as a “true partnership between our California education system and the Chinese education system” and urged the UCLA admissions office to meet with Allen Riedel, the headmaster of Pegasus.

Why was the California Department of Education teaming up with the Chinese government? Why was the state’s chief educational officer trying to set up a meeting between the admissions department and a Chinese private school?

Burnett, records show, was confused by the note. Why was the California Department of Education teaming up with the Chinese government? Why was the state’s chief educational officer trying to set up a meeting between the admissions department and a Chinese private school? Unsure of what to do, she forwarded the email to a colleague. 

“How do you recommend I respond to/route this information?” she asked Ffiona Rees, a senior associate director in the admissions office, according to records obtained by Insider.

“This is new — and appears sketchy!” Rees shot back, copying Gary Clark, UCLA’s director of undergraduate admission.

“I got the same email!” Clark responded. “Don’t reply… odd coming from the Superintendent’s office.” 

Emails from UCLA admissions staffers regarding Pegasus California School

University of California, Los Angeles, via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

Torlakson had drafted the letter, it turned out, at the request of Riedel, the Pegasus headmaster, who was attempting to set up a tour of top-tier colleges. He wanted to tell admissions counselors about a unique new school that was preparing Chinese students for American universities. When some schools proved unreceptive to his overtures, Riedel reached out to Torlakson, asking if he could use his influence to set up meetings with the hard targets such as UCLA. (In a statement, UCLA said no one from the admissions office ever met with Riedel or any other Pegasus administrator.)

In an interview with Insider, Riedel said he was directed to meet with school admissions officers by his boss, David Long, a former California secretary of education, and by Torlakson.

“It seemed like normal operation of business,” Riedel said. (In an email, Long denied telling Riedel to set up the meetings.) Riedel said he never asked admissions officers for special favors. The message was: “We’re a new school, we’re introducing ourselves, and let me talk to you and explain what it is we’re doing … so you know when you’re considering our students.”

Clark, UCLA’s undergraduate admission director, wasn’t buying it. In an email to one of the school’s vice provosts, Clark marveled at the letter from Torlakson. “Huh? We get critiqued for accepting Chines [sic] students but our superintendent writes to support a program like this? Odd.”

He later guessed that “it’s some fishing scam.”

Steven Ma, the school’s founder, wasn’t fishing for college administrators. He was fishing for wealthy parents.

Ma is a former hedge-fund analyst with a burly frame, short-cropped black hair, and a penchant for posting shirtless selfies on Instagram. He immigrated to the US from Taiwan about 30 years ago, at age 11. His first foray into the college-prep business was a test-prep and application consulting company called ThinkTank Learning, which he founded in 2002. It ultimately opened 13 locations, mostly in Northern California strip malls, and expanded to three locations in China. In a 2017 interview with NBC News, Ma expressed interest in opening branches in New York, Seattle, Dallas, and Austin.

Ma enjoyed the fruits of his success: a $364,000 private plane, a $115,000 luxury Mercedes-Benz S550, a $300,000 salary, and a more than $2.8 million home in an affluent Bay Area suburb.

Ma claimed to have generated a secret algorithm that could predict any student’s chances of admission to their dream schools with 93% accuracy, allowing him to offer a money-back guarantee to students who met GPA, extracurricular, and test-score requirements. A 2014 Bloomberg profile of ThinkTank said that Ma “makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets.”

ThinkTank appeared to be a godsend for wealthy parents seeking an edge for their kids, and Ma enjoyed the fruits of his success: a $364,000 private plane, a $115,000 luxury Mercedes-Benz S550, a $300,000 salary, and a more than $2.8 million home in Pleasanton, an affluent suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area. (He has since sold the plane, car, and home, he said, to “run and sustain Pegasus’ money-losing operation.”)

By 2014, ThinkTank Learning was generating annual revenue of over $18 million, with clients who were predominantly Asian families lured by the lofty promise that for tens of thousands of dollars — the company’s VIP contract ran between $300,000 and $2 million — their kids would be admitted to their dream schools.

But as Ma basked in the riches of early success, ThinkTank began to falter: Employees accused the company of being an academic sweatshop, with long hours, no overtime pay, and no breaks as they tirelessly tutored privileged students. Several families sued ThinkTank, claiming the company breached its college consulting contracts, and demanded their money back.

A clock on a wall with the Think Tank logo.

Ma’s first foray into the education business, ThinkTank Learning, ended in bankruptcy.

Damien Maloney

By 2017, according to court records, the company had agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a wage-theft class action that involved all hourly teachers, tutors, and homework helpers employed by the company between 2012 and 2016. ThinkTank also paid an additional $450,000 in 2016 to settle another class action that alleged the company had misidentified certain employees as exempt, so they wouldn’t receive overtime pay and breaks during the day. 

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2020. In an interview, Ma said the accusations against the company were “unfair” and blamed students and employees who “procrastinate[d]” and had to work overtime to catch up as college-application deadlines loomed.

Despite the problems that plagued ThinkTank, Ma had learned a lucrative lesson: Wealthy parents will do whatever it takes to ensure their children are admitted to elite colleges. It was a truism made even more vivid by the 2019 Varsity Blues college-admissions scandal in which dozens of prominent parents — including the actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, as well as actress Felicity Huffman — took part in admissions counselor Rick Singer’s criminal scheme to game the admissions system so that their kids could attend the University of Southern California, Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, and other elite institutions.

But Americans weren’t the only targets — indeed, wealthy Chinese families were some of Singer’s most lucrative clients.


Ma’s idea was to take a system developed over 172 years of public instruction in California with the investment of billions in taxpayer dollars, and sell it to wealthy Chinese parents.

According to
the Institute of International Education,  35% of all foreign students come to the US from China — a number totaling more than 372,500 last year, even as the pandemic disrupted international travel.

To get them here, many wealthy Chinese families send their children to expensive international private schools. In the past decade alone, the number of international secondary schools in China has doubled, with average annual tuition topping $16,000. The total market size for such schools, according to the Chinese research firm Daxue Consulting, was estimated at $8.27 billion in 2019, and was expected to grow to $11.9 billion this year.

Top UC schools — Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Irvine among them — are prized among the Chinese elite, and every year those schools admit tens of thousands of graduates from California’s public high schools. Admissions officers are familiar with the various school districts and the state standards they follow, and they have a time-tested sense of how well the system prepares students for their schools.

Ma’s idea was to take that system, developed over 172 years of public instruction in California with the investment of billions in taxpayer dollars, and sell it to wealthy Chinese parents. He wanted to create a replica of a California public high school in China — a campus that would not just be endorsed by the California Department of Education but be staffed by California teachers who would offer a California curriculum to entice affluent Chinese families who wanted their teens to go abroad for college, and were willing pay the steep tuition costs to make that happen.

Ma told Insider that he first began conceiving of Pegasus around 2013 during conversations with Tom Torlakson, who was then serving his first term as state superintendent of public instruction and was a member of the University of California board of regents, about setting up a California school in China. Ma said Torlakson was a personal friend. “Steven was very politically connected,” one former ThinkTank employee told Insider.

“He was excited about the idea,” Ma said of Torlakson. “I told him that it’s best if we could somehow get his endorsement of this because we want to create an authentic California education and it’s going to be hard to do it without some kind of support from him. And then that’s why he decided to support this on a personal level… and also a professional level.”

Torlakson did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

With the active support of the state’s highest education official, Ma got to work. Torlakson introduced him to Long, the former California secretary of education. While Torlakson could provide official support, Long could work behind the scenes to forge critical relationships. He had connections with California school districts and universities (he’d previously served as the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools) as well as the political clout Ma craved.

“A California state school in mainland China — that’s a good marketing idea,” a former ThinkTank employee told Insider. “A lot of parents would buy that, and having a connection to the UC, that’s all capitalism at its finest.”

“I saw it as an opportunity to potentially help create something that didn’t exist,” Long told Insider in an interview. “To create something that was completely different, all American teachers, all speaking in English, and American curriculum.”

In the fall of 2016, with Long as the head principal and what the school’s website described as Torlakson’s “full support and great dedication,” Ma’s business endeavor officially opened: Pegasus California School, based in Qingdao, initially with 67 students in 9th and 10th grades. 

The Pegasus School campus, with a large sign in Chinese in front.

Pegasus California School in Qingdao, China

Yan Cong for Insider

According to Long, Pegasus rented its current campus from the Chinese government. “It was built by the party and they felt it was too opulent to move into, so they said it’s just going to sit empty here, so we ended up renting it,” he said. 

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

“A California state school in mainland China — that’s a good marketing idea,” a former ThinkTank employee told Insider. “A lot of parents would buy that, and having a connection to the UC, that’s all capitalism at its finest.”

“With Dave’s knowledge of the California system and with Steven Ma’s Chinese American connections that he had, they thought they could start a school that guarantees Chinese kids an education in the US,” a former Pegasus employee added. “Dave and Steven had a business model that they thought they could make money at, and I think honestly they were trying to do the right thing with Chinese kids, but how they were kind of doing it was a little slippery.”

Pegasus repeatedly described itself as a nonprofit in marketing materials and in communications with Val Verde and the University of California. But records obtained by Insider show that the enterprise is a tangled nest of Ma-affiliated for-profit LLCs and corporations registered in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Delaware. Long specifically was listed as one of the directors for at least two of those companies, ThinkTank Holding Co. in Delaware, and the Qingdao Jimo Pegasus Culture Training School LLC in China. (Long’s daughter, Angelica, was listed as a director of that company, too. According to LinkedIn, Angelica worked as the communications and operations coordinator at ThinkTank from 2017 to 2020.)

The companies had names like Qingdao Pegasus Education LLC, Beijing Pegasus Education Consulting LLC, Shenzhen Pegasus Information Consulting LLC, and Pegasus Education Hong Kong Limited, among others. At least one employee contract, viewed by Insider, promised a prospective Pegasus school staffer “shares in Pegasus Stock.” This person, who was hired in the spring of 2019, said he was told that Pegasus was planning to go public on the Hong Kong stock exchange. 

Ma described Pegasus California School as one small part of a much larger profit-seeking enterprise: a planned nationwide network of Chinese kindergartens. The idea, he said, was for the high school to serve as a nonprofit flagship to help build the brand for the kindergartens, which would be the real moneymakers. “It was hard to build the kindergarten schools without a name,” he said. “We thought to build Pegasus California School to build a name so that we could profit from the kindergarten schools — to build a reputation for the enterprise.” The kindergartens, he said, would be run through a holding company in the Marshall Islands called Pegasus Education Group.

“The only link between Pegasus California School and Pegasus Education Group is me,” Ma said. He provided Chinese documents showing that the school is registered as a non-profit.

At this point, Ma told Insider, his expansion plan is no longer feasible. “That was the idea, but it’s hard now because…China is forcing us to change,” he said. “We were sort of told to dial back on the American elements.”

“So, I’m a pretty good poker player, and I’m stammering here a little bit. I don’t even know how to answer this.”

Ma said that Pegasus has yet to break even, and that the project has four investors — three Chinese nationals and Ma himself. “No money of Pegasus’ tuition revenue had ever gone to me nor any investors,” he said.

Ma initially denied that shares were ever offered to any staffers. “No one was offered stocks in 2019,” he said. “I don’t know what he told you.” After being shown a contract, Ma said that they “were not shares of Pegasus California School, but shares of Pegasus Education Group.”

Long reacted with surprise in an interview when asked about his role as a director at two Ma-affiliated companies, and said he had no knowledge of the operation’s finances. “I was never a director of TTL,” he said, referring to ThinkTank Learning. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen that. I’ve never heard that.” Asked about his daughter’s role at ThinkTank, he said: “I don’t know, I’ve never seen her resume, but she might have put that down. But I don’t know what that means.” In a follow-up email, he acknowledged that he and his daughter once “had to sign a piece of paper” relating to Qingdao Jimo Pegasus Culture Training School LLC, but said “there was never a meeting” of the company’s board. 

Long, a short man with broad shoulders, bright-red cheeks, and squinty eyes below a sweep of frost-white hair, served as the public face of Pegasus in his capacity as the school’s principal. Though he lives full time in an $2.7 million beachfront home in Laguna Beach, California, he visited Qingdao frequently throughout the year, and, according to former Pegasus students and staffers, was much more involved with the school’s academics and daily life than Ma.

By the time he became involved with Pegasus, Long already had more than 40 years of education experience under his belt, including more than two decades in the classroom and stints as superintendent at school districts across the state. His wife, Joanne, served as a principal of a school in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, also in Riverside.

A screenshot of a Pegasus School Powerpoint presentation listing the credentials of Dr. David Long. A photo of Long and former Governor Schwarzenegger in on the right.

Courtesy of source

In 2007, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Long, a Republican, as the state’s secretary of education. In 2013, the Riverside County Board of Education opened a 30,000-square-foot, $13.5 million regional learning center in his honor.

Long’s connections proved fruitful for Ma. Cognizant of how intensely many Chinese parents value government endorsements, Ma seemed to realize that an edge could be had by presenting himself as more than just a school founder and businessman. In October 2015, Long emailed Torlakson, according to records obtained from the California Department of Education, to pitch him on the idea of establishing a new role within the department: international education liaison, to help California school districts that need guidance in areas like “diploma issuance to ‘sister schools’ in other countries.”

Two years later, at a swearing-in ceremony, Torlakson appointed California’s first-ever international education liaisons: Steven Ma and David Long. According to emails obtained by Insider, Long helped Torlakson draft the letter officially naming them to the position.

“I can’t tell you the idea’s genesis…. That I don’t know,” Ma said. “We thought it was a great idea. It doesn’t cause burden to California…. It’s a nonpaid, voluntary role.” Ma denied that the appointment was designed to help Pegasus — rather, it was a way of using his and Long’s success at Pegasus to help California. “It was a position that was created because of my and Dave Long’s experience with international education, because we thought that we could do more for California.”

When asked about the appointment, Long first downplayed it before becoming tongue-tied. “I don’t know what it was or whatever came of it…. Nothing was ever done with it that I’m aware of. So, I’m a pretty good poker player, and I’m stammering here a little bit. I don’t even know how to answer this.” Later, asked about emails showing that he helped Torlakson draft the appointment letters, Long acknowledged that Ma had asked him to approach Torlakson with the idea. “I want to be careful here because he is also a good friend of mine,” Long said. “That idea… did not come from me.”

But in the email records, Long specifically told Torlakson that the international education liaison position would be important for meeting with Chinese and Vietnamese political and educational leaders, who “pay particular attention to and place great emphasis on titles, education, seals, etc.”

Photos of former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson swearing in Steven Ma and Dave Long as international education liaisons.

An internal Pegasus powerpoint presentation shows then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson swearing in Steven Ma and Dave Long as international education liaisons for the state of California in Torlakson’s office in June 2017.

Courtesy of a source

To open a California high school with students graduating each year, Ma needed to figure out a way to bestow them with credible state diplomas. Luckily, Long had the relationships to make that happen.

In 2008, following his stint as education secretary, Long started his own consulting firm, Dave Long & Associates, to help school districts across California train their staff, organize board retreats, transition to Common Core standards, and recruit superintendents. One of the school districts that employed Long’s services was Val Verde Unified.

The Val Verde School District building, surrounded by palm trees and an empty parking lot.

Val Verde Unified School District headquarters in Perris, California

Christopher Vu for Insider

The district has paid Long more than $1 million since 2009, according to contracts obtained by Insider, including during the period he was involved with Pegasus. Last school year, he received $120,000 from the district. (In an interview, Long emphasized that much of the money from Val Verde went to paying his staff and overhead.)

“Definitely by the end of my tenure there, I knew that things were wrong. It was not a good situation.”

Long soon had a well-placed ally at Val Verde. In 2015, while the district was paying him to advise it on recruitment and other strategic matters, Val Verde hired a long-time administrator named Michael McCormick as superintendent for a total pay of $240,799. (By 2019, he made $318,901.)

Long and McCormick were close. Just three months into his term as superintendent, according to an email obtained by Insider, Long encouraged Torlakson to appoint McCormick to a state education task force, describing him as a “valuable asset!”

According to Ma, it was Long who first came up with the idea of nesting Pegasus within Val Verde. “We want[ed] to use California educational resources as much as possible,” Ma said. “I rely on his expertise and his experience, and he introduced the idea of Pegasus to…Val Verde, and then we spoke to the board member[s], we pitched the idea, we told them why we want to do this and it will be great if we could have their support, and they really liked the idea too.”

In July 2016, according to district records, the Val Verde Board of Education approved a resolution officially adopting Pegasus as its sister school. As Val Verde’s superintendent, McCormick was a staunch Pegasus supporter. In December 2016, according to email correspondence obtained by Insider, he contacted all district employees and encouraged them to consider moving to Qingdao to work at Pegasus. “Looking for an Adventure?” he asked.

To sway talented Val Verde staffers to leave their posts in California, McCormick described some sweet benefits: furnished apartments, meals, excellent pay with health benefits, and — perhaps most noteworthy — a promise from the district to hold their positions while they were abroad. Over the years, at least 13 Val Verde employees left the district to work at Pegasus.

One of those was Riedel, the school’s headmaster. Before he left for Qingdao, in 2017, he spent 12 years as an English teacher for Val Verde.

“I’ve been an expat before when I was a kid, and the opportunity to go be the headmaster in China was not only a career opportunity but an adventure,” Riedel, who left Pegasus in 2019, told Insider.

But he also encountered challenges once he arrived in China. He said he was kept in the dark about the school’s finances and faced intense pressure to ensure Pegasus students were admitted to top universities.

“Definitely by the end of my tenure there, I knew that things were wrong,” Riedel told Insider. “It was not a good situation. I mean, I signed a two-year contract and started finding out all these things that I didn’t think were on the up and up.”

McCormick, who declined to comment for this story, didn’t seem to share those concerns. In addition to helping Pegasus with recruitment, he also traveled to China several times in his official school capacity to attend events and pass out diplomas.

In the spring of 2017, Val Verde took its relationship with Pegasus a step further: The district approved a three-year diploma pilot program for Pegasus, authorizing all Pegasus graduates to receive a Val Verde diploma and pledging at a school board meeting to “continue to serve the students of Pegasus California High School in various administrative and teaching capacities.” The Val Verde website was updated to include Pegasus in the list of the district’s schools.

The Val Verde Board of Education approved the diploma pilot program for Pegasus in April 2017

Val Verde Unified School District via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

An Insider review of Pegasus diplomas, provided by a source and through a records request, has confirmed that the documents were indeed conferred by Val Verde.

“The bottom line was they needed a school district that would provide a high-school diploma,” one former Pegasus employee told Insider. “I thought it was odd that an American public school was giving a diploma to clearly what was a private Chinese high school. I could not get my head wrapped around that one. I never did understand how that worked.” 

In February 2018, Val Verde and Pegasus signed a memorandum of understanding to further formalize their relationship: In return for receiving diplomas from Val Verde, Pegasus agreed to bring 10 students from the district to China each year for only $300, with all other expenses paid by the private school. The agreement also provided for McCormick and two Val Verde board members to travel to China for the annual grand opening event, to observe class instruction, and to award diplomas at graduation — with travel, lodging, and meals paid for by Pegasus. The memo explicitly stated that Torlakson, then still the California superintendent of public instruction, was in full support of the arrangement.

“We’re not for sale here.”

Insider spoke with two former Val Verde board members, Suzanne Stotlar and Shelly Yarbrough, who voted to authorize the relationship. Both said that they felt the district benefited from the arrangement because of the opportunity for Val Verde students to participate in the international exchange program, and that they were reassured because of Val Verde’s long-standing relationship with Long.

“My impression was that it was unusual…for a California school to provide diplomas to foreign students,” Stotlar acknowledged. “But…the idea was to foster international cooperation between our two countries, and I’m in favor of that.”

Yarbrough told Insider that since the superintendent of public instruction was in full support of the program, she felt it must be legitimate.

“This was a concept that was brought to us by a former secretary of education, a former Riverside county superintendent, and we were getting full support from Torlakson and everything was above board, and to me it didn’t look like a conflict of interest,” she said.

Yarbrough said that she traveled to Pegasus to visit the campus and meet with students in her capacity as board president, and recalled being told that the trip was paid for by the Chinese government. She described the school as impressive. She said her understanding was that the tuition was paid for by Pegasus families, and the campus was a government-owned building.

The flag of California, China, and Pegasus school fly on poles next to the Chinese school campus.

Yan Cong for Insider

“None of it was paid by [US] taxpayer dollars, because that would be on us and I wasn’t going to go [to China] if it was on taxpayer dollars. But I was told that the Chinese were in full support of this school and their education department made all the arrangements,” Yarbrough told Insider. 

“Because it was a private school, and it’s Chinese…they don’t give you a lot of information,” she added.

Experts told Insider that even though Val Verde wasn’t using taxpayer dollars to directly support Pegasus, a public California school district giving high-school diplomas to private-school students in another country raises red flags.

“We’re not for sale here, and so you can’t sell diplomas because of a relationship you have,” said Delaine Eastin, who served as California’s state superintendent of public instruction in the 1990s and early 2000s. “You’re not a California student [and] you’re not entitled to a California diploma, so if they are doing that it’s wrong.”

In an interview, Long dismissed concerns about American schools issuing diplomas on behalf of international students, calling it a common practice. “This is not a new, colossal idea…. We checked with attorneys, we weren’t the first, not a problem,” he said. “That is done across the United States of America.” Asked to provide an example of an American public-school district that issued diplomas on behalf of a foreign private school, Long emailed a list of American private schools, and said that a now defunct Chinese school called Southland previously issued diplomas from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

A review by Insider, including consultations with experts, turned up only two examples of international schools — both in China — engaged in dual-degree programs with public schools in the US in which foreign students can earn diplomas without ever attending the American schools. Both are small-scale partnerships involving magnet schools affiliated with US universities. Asked about Southland, a Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson said the district had “no record of such a program.”

Before Torlakson helped Ma and Long build a bridge between Qingdao and California, he was the frequent beneficiary of their political largesse. Campaign-finance disclosures show that Ma, his brother John, and another ThinkTank Learning employee, Chin Tsai, together contributed a total of $28,422 to Torlakson’s 2014 campaign for superintendent, an elected position in California. ThinkTank donated another $11,100 to the campaign and created a committee, “California Educators for Excellence in Leadership, supporting Tom Torlakson for Superintendent of Public Instruction 2014 sponsored by Think Tank Learning Inc.” According to Torlakson’s personal financial disclosures, he accepted nearly $6,000 from Dave Long & Associates and the Chinese government from 2016 to 2018 to travel to Qingdao.

John Ma did not respond to requests for comment; Tsai could not be reached. Long acknowledged that his consulting firm purchased tickets for Torlakson’s travel but said the firm was reimbursed by Pegasus.

Tom Torlakson in a pinstripe suit at an awards ceremony.

Former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson at the 11th Annual California Hall of Fame ceremony in Sacramento in December 2017.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

In an interview, Ma said that supporting Torlakson politically was not a quid pro quo. “Tom is a personal friend to begin with, and as I would do for other friends who are in the political arena, I will support them financially when I can,” Ma said. “It’s not something that, ‘Hey, I’m helping you out here so in the future you help me out.’ No, it’s not like that.”

Torlakson’s political influence proved extremely beneficial as Ma pursued his business dealings in China. At 71, Torlakson has held positions with the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, California State Senate, and California State Assembly. He was first elected as superintendent of public instruction in 2010, and held the position until 2019.

Torlakson visited Pegasus a handful of times while he was still in office, according to six former Pegasus employees, attending events like the school’s opening ceremony and graduation. Three people said that he travelled to China with a state-supplied security detail. 

A former teacher said that during one such visit, he approached Torlakson, asking what California’s superintendent of public instruction was doing at a private Chinese boarding school. “He didn’t really have an answer,” this person said.

A California Department of Education spokesman said the department cut all ties with Pegasus after Torlakson retired in 2019. “Upon taking office in 2019, State Superintendent [of Public Instruction Tony] Thurmond severed all ties to any relationship with Pegasus and its representatives that existed before his administration,” the spokesman said.

Pegasus’ selling point was that it was considered a high school within Val Verde, with an English-only learning environment and teachers from California. “It is like taking any high school in California and placing it in Qingdao, China,” Long wrote in a letter addressed to University of California admissions directors in 2018. “Our records are housed in the Val Verde School District and are checked by their registrar for accuracy.” In a 2016 letter from Torlakson to Ma that was later circulated to colleges, the then superintendent said that he was “pleased to endorse the use of California’s academic curriculum by Pegasus.” 

A letter about Pegasus that was from David Long and addressed to UC Undergraduate Admission Directors

University of California, Irvine via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

But there were some notable differences between the Chinese high school and its California counterparts.

Val Verde schools average 35 students a class, a former teacher said, while Pegasus averaged around nine. According to a Pegasus brochure, the teacher to student ratio was nearly 12-to-1. In the evenings, Pegasus students had mandatory teacher-supervised study hall, where they received one-on-one instruction to ensure they stayed on top of their classwork.

Foreign teachers at Pegasus were paid a salary between $60,000 and $80,000 and enjoyed perks including furnished apartments, utilities, visa fees, meal allowances at the Pegasus cafeteria, and one round-trip flight a year, according to a flyer obtained by Insider.

A group of men party at night at a beer festival, all holding and drinking beer.

A party at the 16th Qingdao International Beer Festival, hosted by Tsingtao Beer Group, in August 2006. Pegasus had a friendly relationship with the brewery, Ma said.

Cancan Chu/Getty Images

Pegasus students already started off with considerable advantages compared to many Val Verde students. Former staffers said the students came from wealthy families. (Ma disputed this, saying as many as half the students received scholarships of some form; Long said it was closer to a third.) Three former Pegasus employees told Insider that one student’s family member was an executive at Tsingtao Brewery, China’s second-largest brewery. Every year, one person said, Pegasus staffers were invited to a beer festival where they resided in a private room and were treated to gourmet snacks and exclusive beers, all free. This person added that another parent invited teachers to a private party on her yacht.

Ma said the school maintained a friendly relationship with Tsingtao and that “teachers and staff were invited to their booth at the once a year Qingdao Beer Festival.” Some festival events, he said, “took place on rental yachts.”

“We had kids bringing in, like, $1,000-plus gaming laptops, they all had the most recent iPhone, they had their AirPods, and they had a whole bunch of really nice designer brands,” the staffer said. “The kids were not wanting for money in any stretch.”

Three former staffers told Insider that some parents held government positions and that the school was asked to admit a student who didn’t pass the entrance exam because her father was a high-ranking general.

Foreign teachers at Pegasus were paid a salary between $60,000 and $80,000 and enjoyed perks including furnished apartments, utilities, visa fees, meal allowances at the Pegasus cafeteria, and one round-trip flight a year, according to a flyer obtained by Insider.

Pegasus California School flyer

University of California, Irvine, via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

Other Val Verde staffers weren’t as lucky. Back in California, teacher salaries started at about  $56,560 (senior teachers with a master’s degree or significant experience could make up to $121,100), without perks like free room and board.

Val Verde public schools — despite their high graduation rates — perform below statewide averages for key metrics such as college and career preparedness, chronic absenteeism, and mathematics scores. Last year the district’s general fund ran a $4.2 million budget deficit.

The courtyard of Citrus Hill High School, with a mural displaying the school's sports team, the Hawks.

Citrus Hill High School in Perris, CA is a part of the Val Verde school district.

Christopher Vu for Insider

Part of Ma’s sales pitch to Chinese parents was that a degree from Pegasus would catapult their children directly into the highly regarded University of California system. As Jun Wang, the father of a former Pegasus student, put it, “Some parents may think [Long’s] experience as the secretary of the education department may help Pegasus to get on well with the universities in California, or with the educational officials in California. [They] hope Pegasus can offer more opportunities for the students to get accepted to the UC system.” 

“These kids need to go to their top universities.”

To make that a reality, records show, Pegasus administrators spent a great deal of energy burnishing the school’s reputation and attempting to build relationships with UC admissions departments.

In an August 2018 email obtained by Insider, Riedel, the former Pegasus headmaster, explicitly invoked “Dr. Long’s connections” as he pressured the school’s guidance counselor to meet admissions goals.

An email from the former Pegasus headmaster to the school's counselor

Val Verde Unified School District via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider


“These kids need to go to their top universities,” he said. “We need to…get some of these kids at least accepted in Ivy League schools. Accepted, not necessarily that they go there. We imagine our next 16-28 will go to UCI (or comparable) with Dr. Long’s connections and my visit to some universities.” 

“If you need to belly laugh/guffaw at my email, please do so and then let’s get to figuring,” Riedel went on. “Chinese parents make big demands on our time with college stuff (and as early as 9th grade – like what are they doing every day to ensure college entrance) – we laugh, but to these very wealthy and determined folks, it is super serious.”

When Insider asked Riedel about his email, he told Insider: “It was my job, and it is what I was told I had to do.” During application season, he said, he often worked until midnight. “That was the demand placed upon me — that as headmaster, Dave Long expected me to get kids into top schools.” 

Ma denied ever telling parents that a Pegasus diploma would fast-track their kids into the University of California system, and said that Riedel and his wife, who also worked at Pegasus and was fired by Long, “held grudges against the school.”

A building at University of California, Irvine, with the school's logo on the front.

The University of California at Irvine.

Christopher Vu for Insider

In an email, Long denied pressuring staffers and said the suggestion that Pegasus students received preferential treatment was “blatantly false.” He added in an interview that he was not a fan of the school’s money-back guarantee. “I was not the one that proposed it,” he told Insider. 

Nonetheless, the school’s efforts apparently paid off: In June 2020, Long said at a virtual Val Verde school-board meeting that UCI’s admissions director called him personally after 9 o’clock on a Saturday night to say that 46 Pegasus seniors from the class of 2020 had been accepted into the UC system.

A UCI spokesperson said that the school’s executive director of undergraduate admissions denied making such a call, adding that it was unlikely that anyone at UCI would’ve had access to system-wide data about Pegasus admissions.

Despite an archived video of the meeting clearly showing that Long said “our seniors received 46 acceptances to the UC system,” Long told Insider that he actually said 16 students had been admitted and 10 waitlisted. 

Although marketing materials obtained by Insider described Pegasus as a California high school in China with all California teachers, a California curriculum, and a California diploma, the school had a persistent problem: Pegasus had never been properly accredited as a high school in America or China, records show.

According to emails obtained by Insider, Pegasus applied for accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which governs Val Verde’s schools, in 2016. But it never received approval, despite a years-long campaign that included hiring a $600-a-month consultant (who was also employed full time as a Val Verde staffer) to smooth the process. The reason, emails show, is that Pegasus was not licensed as a high school in China. Instead, Ma said, it was licensed as a foreign language training school. 

“They are being very persistent about trying to meet with me and also sending letters to the Chancellor,” one admissions director said. “I feel badly for families who can easily be led to believe that this program is endorsed by the UC system.”

“To get a license of high school in China…you were forced to teach Communist doctrines,” Ma said. “We didn’t want that. So we opt[ed] to become a language school…. Because we don’t have that status of high school in China, we couldn’t get WASC-accredited.” It was, Ma said, “a Catch-22.”

Riedel, the former headmaster, told Insider that he learned about the licensing issue after he arrived in China, and that when he confronted Long about it, Long instructed him not to tell staffers and families.

Long denied that he told Riedel to keep the lack of licensing under wraps. “As far as I knew, that was common knowledge,” he said. “I would never say something like that.”

Former WASC president Fred Van Leuven confirmed to Insider that Pegasus lacked the proper licensing. “It didn’t meet our basic criteria for accreditation,” he said. “We couldn’t go any farther until we had a license that said what it was. That kind of ends the conversation.” 

Emails obtained by Insider show that some UC system administrators were also skeptical of Pegasus’ bona fides,  including its claim to offer the “A-G course list” — a program of courses required for California students to gain admittance to UC schools. (The UC system maintains an online database of California schools that teach the courses; schools listed there can claim to teach the “UC-approved” course list. Pegasus, since it is not in California, is not in the database.)

Evera Spears, a former associate director for the University of California’s Office of the President, was so alarmed by Pegasus’ efforts to ingratiate itself with UC schools that she sent an alert in 2018 to admissions directors at all nine undergraduate UC campuses reminding them that Pegasus was “not WASC accredited; does not have a UC A-G Course List, and does not have a College Board School Code.” She added that any Pegasus students accepted into any of the UC schools must be designated an “Admission by Exception,” the system’s term for students who show promise but don’t meet the admission requirements.

A few months after Spears sent that email, the director of admissions for UC Santa Barbara reached out to her to ask if Pegasus had a UC-approved course list. Spears responded that the school did not.

“It’s off putting that they are using terms like A-G Approved course list. They are being very persistent about trying to meet with me and also sending letters to the Chancellor,” the admissions director said. “I feel badly for families who can easily be led to believe that this program is endorsed by the UC system.”

An email from the UC Santa Barbara admissions director to a UCOP staffer about Pegasus

University of California, Santa Barbara, via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

Ma and Long both insisted that Pegasus does follow the A-G course list.

The UC system wasn’t the only public entity looking into Pegasus. In 2019, Val Verde conducted an investigation into its Chinese affiliate, records show, after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Val Verde “issues diplomas to an unaccredited, for-profit school in China.”


“Pegasus knows it is not accredited and they are using Val Verde’s partnership to mask their status and provide something they could otherwise not give, the mask of legitimacy.”

The 36-page complaint
alleged, among other things, that after Long recruited McCormick to serve as Val Verde’s superintendent, McCormick bestowed Pegasus with the diplomas it needed; that, while Pegasus claimed to be non-profit, it was registered as a for-profit LLC; that multiple staffers actually did not have their California teaching credentials; and that district officials violated California conflict-of-interest rules when they accepted free travel, food, and lodging in China in exchange for conferring students with Val Verde diplomas. 

“If any of the dozens of colleges where Pegasus students receive admission ever dig into the actual connection between Val Verde and Pegasus, they will immediately see that Pegasus is unaccredited, and could very well take legal action,” the tipster wrote to a district official in November 2019, without specifying what sort of legal action could be brought. “Pegasus knows it is not accredited and they are using Val Verde’s partnership to mask their status and provide something they could otherwise not give, the mask of legitimacy.”

Val Verde’s lawyer, Todd Robbins, encouraged McCormick and other Val Verde staffers to conduct a good-faith investigation. “That way, if the media (or an entity that provides oversight) gets involved, we can say we complied with our obligation to investigate,” he wrote in December 2019, according to emails obtained by Insider.

Robbins was puzzled by the Pegasus relationship. “I am still unclear why Val Verde is conferring diplomas for Pegasus,” he told McCormick and other district staffers, according to the emails. “There is not a clear agreement between the District and the school that calls for that.” 

An email from Val Verde's lawyer regarding its investigation into Pegasus

Val Verde Unified School District via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

Ultimately, while Val Verde acknowledged that its agreement with Pegasus “is very general and not clearly defined,” in February 2020 the district said it found no evidence to suggest that it was “unlawfully issuing diplomas” to Pegasus students, records show

Although the complaint was anonymous, Long and Ma claim that it was written by an employee of an international school in China that competes with Pegasus for students.

A sign, surrounded by hedges, reads: "Welcome to UC Irvine"

Christopher Vu for Insider

While some UC campuses raised concerns about Pegasus, UC Irvine and UC Riverside seemed to — like Val Verde — embrace the Chinese private school. The high school also appeared to have an ally within the UC system’s Office of the President, Insider has learned.

Daniel Aldrich, a retired staffer for the UC Office of the President (as well as the son of UC Irvine’s founding chancellor) who continues to work as a part-time contractor for UC Irvine, visited Pegasus and contacted employees at two UC campuses — Irvine and San Diego — regarding the school. For instance, in 2018, Aldrich supplied Edgar Dormitorio, UCI’s Assistant Vice Chancellor, with a list of Pegasus students interested in attending the university, records show. In a follow-up email, Bryan Jue, a senior admissions staffer, told Aldrich he’d “continue to monitor their progress through the admissions cycle” and that “they are all looking like competitive students for UCI.”

Emails also show that in February 2020 Long sent Aldrich a list of Pegasus seniors who had applied to UC Irvine. Aldrich responded to Long that, after reviewing the 15 applicants, he projected that nine students would probably be accepted, with an additional three on the border.

David Long sent Daniel Aldrich a list of Pegasus seniors

A list of Pegasus students applying to UC-Irvine provided by Dave Long to Dan Aldrich, a contractor who consulted for Pegasus and the university at the same time.

University of California Office of the President via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

According to Long, Aldrich was a paid consultant for Pegasus at the time. “Especially with international students and parents, it’s helpful to have someone that has had or is connected with, previously or currently [with the University of California]. We try to stay away from the current, but he’s a consultant so it’s not that big of a [deal],” Long added.

Aldrich confirmed to Insider that he was paid to consult for both UC Irvine and Pegasus, and that the high school also paid for him to travel to China. (Ma initially acknowledged that Aldrich consulted for Pegasus, but later claimed that Aldrich actually consulted for Long’s company.) Aldrich said that he formally retired from the UC Office of the President in 2012, and consulted for the office until 2016.

“I don’t know,” Ma said. “I’m not an expert in education.”

Emails obtained by Insider show that Aldrich communicated with UC personnel about Pegasus using a UC Office of the President email account as recently as December 2019, and he remained listed on the office’s web site as a “senior development associate” until Insider inquired about his status in May. A UC Office of the President spokesperson said Aldrich “was allowed to retain his UCOP email address for ease of communication with donors and others with whom he had established preexisting relationships through his work on behalf of the university.”

Aldrich said he never did anything improper in his work for Pegasus. He said he became involved with the school sometime around 2016, when Long approached him with questions about “what it takes for students…to be potentially eligible to come to the University of California.”

“Yes, I have interacted with the University of California…even as a retired employee, since I care about the University of California and its people,” Aldrich told Insider. “[Pegasus] produced quality students, and we look for quality students in the University of California, in accord with the appropriate mission statement of the University of California.”

UC Irvine told Insider in a statement that Aldrich contacted the university to see if Pegasus students’ applications were missing transcripts or other necessary documents. “There was no discussion of admission, because no guarantees of admission would ever be given, and these students still needed to go through the comprehensive review process. This type of review is the same type of service offered to any schools or counselors that work with us.”

A large modern concrete building on the UCI campus in sunlight with stairs leading up to it.

The University of California at Irvine.

Christopher Vu for Insider

Overall, UC Irvine’s relationship with Pegasus seemed cozy. In Long’s 2018 letter to UC admissions staffers, he ticked off some examples: the annual three- to four-week summer program specifically for Pegasus students, campus representatives who visited Pegasus to meet with students and parents, and the university’s assistance in recruiting its graduates to teach at the high school.

Riedel, the former Pegasus headmaster, personally invited UC Irvine admissions staffers to China, according to a 2018 email exchange. “We would, of course, provide airfare, transport, and accommodations,” he added. The staffer responded that they looked forward to visiting Pegasus. When asked if UCI accepted Riedel’s offer to pay for the trip, a spokesperson said the university did not. The spokesperson said that a China-based UCI admissions counselor made a visit to Pegasus in the fall of 2018 as a “general recruitment trip.” 

Long told Riedel that UC Irvine pledged to accept at least some Pegasus graduates, Riedel said in an interview. “Dave Long always spoke about his connections with UC Irvine and with the president there,” Riedel told Insider. “[He] told us…if they wanted to, they could go directly to UC Irvine no problem.” When asked to clarify, Riedel said: “Dave Long reported that to me that they wouldn’t take all of our students but they would take some of them.”

Long denied that he ever made that statement. “I don’t even know the president,” he said. “And about a statement to say if you just come from Pegasus you can get in automatically, that’s not correct. You have to reach the minimums to even be considered.”

Ma acknowledged that Pegasus worked to establish what he called “a favorable relationship” with both UC Irvine and UC Riverside. But he insisted that the goal was to help “bring educational insight to Pegasus California School students” rather than secure them a leg up in admissions, which he said would be “impossible” anyway. Asked why Long might say that his connections could help Pegasus students applying to UC Irvine, Ma replied: “I don’t know. I’m not an expert in education.”

In a statement UCI said it never guaranteed admission to anyone:

“As part of our commitment to public service and access to higher education, UCI engages in collaborations that support preparation for and success in higher education. Our focus is on equity and access for all students in order to achieve the University of California’s goal of academic excellence…. Any inferences or claims by current or former Pegasus staff member[s] that UCI guarantees admission to Pegasus graduates are completely erroneous. UCI will never offer guarantees or promises of freshman admission to any school or individual. To say otherwise is irresponsible and damaging to the integrity of our admissions process.”

A large modern clocktower juts into the sky, with the sun appearing behind foliage to right.

The University of California at Riverside

Christopher Vu for Insider

Forty-five miles east of Irvine, and 12 miles from Val Verde Unified, UC Riverside also forged close ties with the Chinese high school.

The university is ranked 88th in the US, according to US News and World Report, ahead of UC campuses like UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced, but behind UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis. Admission to UC Riverside would satisfy Ma’s promise of entry into a top 100 US university.

“What UCR has agreed is that every student that graduates from Pegasus will have admission to UCR.”

Nearby Val Verde proved key in facilitating the connection between the university and Pegasus. In fact, during a May 2019 Val Verde board meeting, McCormick announced that two district board members would be going to UC Riverside for a signing ceremony memorializing an agreement between Pegasus and the college.

“Essentially what this means,” McCormick explained, according to public meeting minutes, “is that UCR and Pegasus will have an agreement to exchange professors and students. What UCR has agreed is that every student that graduates from Pegasus will have admission to UCR.”

Image of public Val Verde board meeting minutes

Val Verde board meeting minutes; Samantha Lee/Insider

Experts told Insider that it would be unacceptable for UC Riverside, a public California university, to guarantee admission to Chinese nationals who graduate from a Chinese school.

“The goal of public education in the state of California is to support California children, and higher education does allow [students] from other countries, but we don’t guarantee them admission,” said Eastin, the former California superintendent of public instruction. “I find it appalling if it is true that UC Riverside has guaranteed admission for these graduates.” 

In a statement, a spokesperson for UC Riverside said McCormick was mistaken. “It appears that an individual made some incorrect statements at a Val Verde school board meeting, about which statements the University had no knowledge until they were later brought to the university’s attention.”

The agreement that McCormick had referenced during the board meeting was the memorandum of understanding between the university and high school, according to records obtained from UC Riverside. It was, according to internal emails, the university’s first MOU with an international high school, and was signed by Long and Cynthia Larive, currently the chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, and who previously served as provost and executive vice chancellor at UC Riverside. Long, his daughter, Ma, Torlakson, McCormick, and two Val Verde board members attended the signing, records show.

While the memorandum of understanding doesn’t mention guaranteed admission, the document does describe a slew of other arrangements agreed on by the university, including “customized programs that would serve students from PCS High School” and the provision of “office, meeting space, and marketing capabilities to UCR for programs within Qingdao and the Shandong Province.” 

In exchange, Pegasus agreed to “promote and encourage qualified students to submit their application to UCR between November 1 and November 30 of each year.” 

The UC Riverside spokesperson said the MOU was part of a “campuswide effort to increase awareness among international high schools. That is a common practice among universities, and we have similar MOUs with other international schools.” The spokesperson said UC Riverside didn’t have any similar arrangements with any of Val Verde’s public high schools.

Large, freestanding metal letters that read "UCR" sit in a garden.

Christopher Vu for Insider

Just two days after the document signing, UC Riverside was already having concerns about how Pegasus was promoting its relationship. That month, Pegasus announced via WeChat — a popular messaging and social-media platform in China — that “the University of California set up its first overseas admissions office in China” at Pegasus, going so far as to place a “UC Admission Office” sign on campus.

UC Riverside wasn’t happy. On May 10, 2019, an assistant provost emailed Long, demanding that Pegasus delete the WeChat announcement and take the sign down. “As I have mentioned, the word ‘admissions’ has a very specific meaning, and we have never agreed to authorize Pegasus to put ‘UC Admission Office’ at your school,” the email said.

Long agreed to take down the post and remove the sign from the door, but Pegasus’ close public identification with UC Riverside seemed to confuse at least one prospective Pegasus student. 

On the same day UC Riverside complained about the WeChat post, the university was contacted by a Chinese student living outside Qingdao who expressed interest in transferring to Pegasus. She said she had read online about an official cooperation between the college and high school, and was under the impression that being at Pegasus would bolster her chances of being accepted to UC Riverside. She wanted to know if what she read was true.

“According to the news this Pegasus school reports, the student from this school can get privileges when they apply to UCR,” she said. “If it is true, I am considering to transfer into this Pegasus school to get the priority offer from UCR.”

A Chinese student living outside of Qingdao contacted UC Riverside about its relationship with Pegasus

University of California, Riverside, via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

UC Riverside admission staffers were taken aback by the student’s email. “I’m sure we don’t give any privileges to students from this school. How should we answer this?” said Mandy Loh, assistant director for international and out-of-state recruitment and evaluation. She questioned whether the student was perhaps “an agent or maybe even media.”

Emily Engelschall, the interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services, replied that there was no way that UC Riverside would give Pegasus students priority consideration or have an admissions office on their campus.

But while Engelschall brushed off concerns about Pegasus, her own employees had been offering Pegasus students the opportunity to submit late admissions applications to the university, giving them an advantage over students who abided by the UC-wide November 30 deadline.

Five months before UC Riverside and Pegasus officially signed the memorandum of understanding — and 10 days after the UC application deadline — in December 2018, Long sent the school a list of 18 late Pegasus applicants who wanted to apply to UC Riverside. Instead of questioning the late applicants, the admissions staffer seemed overjoyed. “Thank you so much for the list, this is amazing!” he said.

“Let’s work on this together and get these students appealed and applied asap,” he added, sharing with Long the instructions for how to submit a late-application appeal.

Emails show that Engelschall personally authorized a late application through December 15 — giving Pegasus students an extra 15 days to apply.

Image of internal UC Riverside emails

University of California, Riverside, via records request; Samantha Lee/Insider

“Have we approved any late application appeals at this point for any other students?” Engelschall asked a colleague after approving the extension. The answer came back no.

The spokesperson for UC Riverside said that of the 18 applicants sent to the school, 13 had actually already applied on time, and that none of the remaining five ended up submitting late application appeals.

Both Ma and Long said that it was not uncommon for students to apply to universities after the admissions deadline. “I’ve advised students to apply to school even after their deadline has finished, because the school has the capacity to admit students on an exception basis,” Ma told Insider.

“That is done in every university in the United States of America, depending on whether or not they’ve filled their quotas for numbers. So that’s not unusual,” Long added.

While UC Riverside staffers worked hard behind the scenes to ensure Pegasus students had the best possible chance of being admitted to the university, former and current Pegasus students told Insider they weren’t actually that interested in attending the college, because for some it wasn’t ranked high enough for them. 

“They basically said they would accept all the students that we have.”

Cathy Wang, who graduated from Pegasus in 2019, said counselors and teachers specifically encouraged them to apply to UC Riverside. “When I was at Pegasus,” she said, “Dr. Long was super engaged in the interaction with UC Riverside, so they basically said they would accept all the students that we have.” She ultimately decided not to apply to UC Riverside.

According to the UC Riverside spokesperson, between 2019 and 2021, 44 Pegasus students applied, 36 were admitted, none enrolled. Long offered different numbers, which he said he obtained from Pegasus: Between 2019 and 2021, 33 students applied to UC Riverside, and 31 were accepted. He confirmed zero students have enrolled.

Jihong Xie, a 2019 Pegasus grad currently attending UC Davis, was one of those students accepted to UC Riverside.

“We all believe we will get offers from different really good schools, so that’s why we take UCR as our safety school, because the rank of UCR is not that high,” Xie said. “That’s probably the main reason why we all put that into our safety school. We always have back-up.”

A school hallway with light coming through windows at the end. A sign on the wall reads, "Words from the principal", and "Welcome to Pegasus".

Pegasus China campus hallway.

Courtesy of source

Although Long was praising Pegasus as recently as last June, something clearly went awry in the months since.

In a letter that Long shared with Pegasus students, parents, teachers, staff, and friends sometime in the months following the Val Verde virtual board meeting, and obtained by Insider from a source, he announced that he had submitted his resignation and would no longer be affiliated with Pegasus.

“In four years we have had two graduating classes with our students attending outstanding universities in the United States, England, Canada, and Australia, We are ranked #1 in Shandong Province, #28 out of 1257 international schools in China, Our teaching staff is ranked #5 in all of China, Most importantly, we have seen your sons and daughters learn, grow, and mature,” Long wrote in the letter.

“None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the collaboration among our fine students, outstanding teachers and support staff, and our wonderful parents. You accomplished all of this because of your working together. Thank you!!” 

One former Pegasus staffer said she heard rumors that Long and Ma had a falling out.

“Based on the impressions I got about Steven Ma and the conversations I was told about from people who had spoken to him, and comparing that with what I knew about Dr. Long, it’s really not surprising I would say that their relationship deteriorated over time,” another person told Insider.

Long said he left because Ma told him that he and the investors no longer wanted an American running the school. “In May or June, I got a call from Steven and he said he had had a meeting with the investors and they wished to have all Chinese management,” Long said. “And I said…I perfectly understand that, you’ll have my resignation in one hour.” 

A wall covered in ivy with a sign on it reading "Pacific Academy".

Pegasus now claims to have a joint diploma arrangement with Pacific Academy, a private school in Irvine. But the school’s CEO says the deal isn’t done.

Christopher Vu for Insider

In a July 24 Memorandum sent out from McCormick to the Val Verde Board of Education, he disclosed that the district’s three-year pilot program to grant Pegasus students diplomas had lapsed, and that it wouldn’t be renewed, as “the geopolitical environment is much different, and we no longer have any Val Verde teachers working at Pegasus.” Last summer, the district quietly removed Pegasus from its website, and Pegasus announced it was teaming up with a new private high school, the “international famous high school ‘Pacific Academy,'” which has campuses in Irvine and San Diego.

Pegasus claimed on its site to have a “joint diploma” program with Pacific, and Pegasus’ current academic principal, Robert Taylor, told Insider in an interview that he had seen mock-ups of a diploma bearing the seals of both Pegasus and Pacific — and that Pegasus students will be receiving those diplomas in June. But Pacific’s CEO told Insider that she had not approved the arrangement, and Ma acknowledged that Pegasus graduates this year will not be receiving the Pacific diplomas.

pegasus california school website

Pegasus California School; Samantha Lee/Insider

Despite the recent adjustments, Pegasus has continued to try to operate its distinctly Californian brand in mainland China. At the beginning of this school year, for example, kids divided up into different groups — the UC Berkeley group, UCLA group, UC Irvine group, and UC Davis group — to partake in icebreaker activities and get to know one another, the school website said. 

And although Long is no longer around to bolster relationships with California universities and officials, Pegasus — for a time at least — had a new chief principal to pick up the slack and keep parents happy. 

Shortly after Long’s resignation, the Pegasus website was updated to introduce a new leader, chief principal Tom Torlakson, whose photograph and biography appeared on the site. But when Insider asked Ma about Torlakson’s appointment in May, Ma said the former superintendent of public education had stepped down from the role a few months before, citing health reasons.

But four days after that interview, Taylor, the academic principal, contradicted Ma’s account. Torlakson, Taylor said, was still his boss, and was still the chief principal of Pegasus. Following Insider’s interview with Ma, the description of Torlakson as chief principal was taken off the Pegasus site, as was its claim to have a dual-diploma arrangement with Pacific.

JiaJing Liu contributed reporting.