California Lawmakers Start Debating How to Prevent Another College Admissions Scandal

When state legislators grilled University of California staff at a hearing earlier this week about the agency’s response to the recent college admissions scandal, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty asked the question that’s been reverberating since the story broke.

“How do we reassure the public that the system is not totally rigged?”

It’s a dilemma for lawmakers who feel pressure to respond to a nationwide cheating scheme that cuts at the heart of higher education’s legitimacy. Among the dozens of people charged by federal law enforcement with using fake test scores and athletic profiles to secure admission for wealthy students at elite colleges, one was a UCLA soccer coach and another the parent of a UC Berkeley alumnus. The scandal stung all the more given the massive demand among Californians for a UC degree.

Though Tuesday’s hearing generated strong talk of crackdowns and expulsions, there are limits to what state government can and can’t do to prevent future scandals. State officials have little ability to influence the private schools at the center of the investigation, and even within California’s public university system, key decisions about admission are made within the ivory tower, by UC faculty and staff.

But legislators do have significant control over UC’s purse strings and the governor and lieutenant governor sit on the UC Board of Regents. Here are three takeaways from the state’s response so far.

UC already has a small side door—and will be double-checking the locks now.

UC policy allows campuses to admit up to six percent of each entering class as “admissions by exception,” meaning they don’t meet usual standards but have a special talent such as athletics or performing arts.

Those under-the-radar admissions are the kind the FBI alleges parents exploited at UC and elite private schools, by bribing coaches to bring on their children as walk-on players.

They can also be used to increase geographic and cultural diversity, Provost Michael Brown told legislators Tuesday, by admitting students who were homeschooled or attended high schools in rural areas that don’t offer the courses that UC usually requires.

Brown said actual admissions by exception usually amount to 2 percent or less of each class—campuses don’t use their entire quota because demand for regular slots is so high. Including transfer students, the university received nearly 218,000 undergraduate applications for the 2019-to-2020 school year.

UC officials says they doesn’t set aside any admissions slots for donors or legacy students—those whose parents attended the university—and audits a random sampling of applications each year to ensure the information submitted is accurate.

Regardless, admissions by exception will likely be a focus of UC’s internal investigation into the extent of the fraud. “We are going to scrub this and see what we can do to improve our processes and … make it very difficult for anyone to take advantage of our system,” said the university’s chief audit officer, Alex Bustamante.

The scandal has reignited debate over the use of the SAT and ACT exams in admissions.

More than 1,000 colleges and universities nationwide have stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT test scores, according to the nonprofit FairTest—including, last year, the prestigious University of Chicago.

The University of California, so far, hasn’t joined their ranks. But the revelation that wealthy families could so brazenly game the tests has lent urgency to an ongoing discussion within the university about their future use.

At the request of UC President Janet Napolitano, a faculty task force has for the last several months been studying whether standardized tests accurately predict how well a student will succeed at the university. Critics of the SAT and ACT have long argued that they perpetuate racial disparities and favor applicants whose families can afford expensive test prep courses.

“I think the scandal has helped people understand how these tests have become synonymous with privilege,” said UC regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley, a longtime critic of the SAT who also serves as chancellor of the California Community Colleges. “What I’m hearing from my colleagues is outrage and concern and a heightened interest in getting back the recommendation from the Academic Senate.”

The College Board defends the SAT’s integrity, saying it relies on schools to provide fair testing environments, but has also taken measures to increase security in recent years.

“No single admissions criteria is perfect, but objective measures like college entrance exams protect hardworking, honest students by making fraud harder to pull off and easier to detect,” Zachary Goldberg, a spokesperson for the board, said in an email.

About 60 percent of freshman applicants to UC’s fall 2019 class submitted SAT scores, 20 percent sent ACT scores, and the rest took both exams. Cal State requires the test for applicants whose high school GPAs are lower than 3.0, or who want to attend a campus or program with high demand.

UC campuses vary in how much they emphasize standardized tests, said Eddie Comeaux, chair of the university’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, the panel that oversees admissions. At some, grades and test results together count for more than 90 percent of an applicant’s score, he said, while others take a more holistic approach.

One option UC could pursue: relying more on the Smarter Balanced tests the state already requires all students to take in 11th grade. Designed to align with school curriculum, Smarter Balanced exams do about as well as the SAT at predicting whether a student will get good grades in their first year at UC or Cal State and return for a second year, according to a forthcoming UC Davis study.

However, the study found both tests were less effective at predicting outcomes for low-income students, said lead author Michal Kurlaender. Students outside California wouldn’t necessarily have access to the Smarter Balanced exams. And in-school state assessment tests, while free and convenient for students to take, have faced cheating scandals of their own.

Expect athletics to come under more scrutiny.

UC officials say any candidates recommended by athletic coaches go through an independent review before they’re admitted.

“For all the processes I know about, no single individual is able to pull the trigger on a decision,” Brown said Tuesday.

But the checks and balances seem to have failed in the case of Jorge Salcedo, a UCLA soccer coach indicted on suspicion of taking $200,000 in bribes to accept two recruits who had never played the sport competitively. UCLA placed Salcedo on leave last week.

When asked whether admissions officers actually contact a student’s high school to verify athletic accomplishments, director of admissions Han Mi Yoon-Wu acknowledged that in deciding on a candidate, they often rely on coaches’ expertise.

That should change, said Comeaux, a former professional baseball player who researches athletics in higher education.

“My suggestion would be to make sure you have more faculty oversight,” he said, adding that the admissions board will take up the issue at its April meeting. He pointed to UC Berkeley, which tightened admissions standards for athletes in recent years in response to low graduation rates among its football players, as a possible model.

That’s one reform legislators might also urge UC to adopt. “We need to make sure the person who got on the swim team knows how to swim,” McCarty said.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

5 Comments

  1. This is a well-known legal business. Has anyone noticed most public officials in the Bay Area come from these top universities even when their work performance and work ethics is lower than average? All people need is a degree from these elite schools to become an elite of this society. For this, they are willing to engage in bribery of all forms of corruption and donate lots of money to these universities. This way their children will have a big piece of the economic pie while the rest compete with their real talents for what is left. Just as others govenmental and the like employment agencies, insiders come first then the rest. Youths of this country, in addition to college education you need to have connections. If not, others with less education and talent than you will be your bosses!

  2. This is not a new issue. When I was a Junior in HS in L.A. in 1962, it was common knowledge among my classmates that a contribution to an alumni fund or a building fund would get you into Stanford or USC. Much like #metoo, it’s an old issue only now receiving scrutiny.

  3. Aren’t these folks already being charged with breaking laws and facing jail time/fines? Why the knee-jerk reaction that new laws are needed? Sounds like existing laws worked.

  4. This is going to confuse a LOT of people.

    Private and public colleges and universities may look alike, but they are VERY DIFFERENT THINGS.

    Thanks to the inalienable rights of Americans to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the pursuit of happiness, Americans can associate with other Americans and establish PRIVATE colleges and universities for just about any purpose and have any admissions criteria they damn well please. They could set up a college that only admits women or only admits black people. The could set up a college named after Robert E. Lee or even the Pope!

    It’s hard to see how there is a “scandal” in the way that private colleges and universities choose to do their business.

    PUBLIC universities are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. They are completely under the thumbs of politicians who ultimately make the rules, and scandal occurs when they make rules that allow or require scandalous things.

    The rules that govern public universities typically emphasize political virtues like “equality” and “fairness” and fake “diversity”, while things like “excellence” and “creativity” and “freedom of thought” get pushed aside.

    If the academic deep thinkers are going to address the scandals with “reforms” that put “athletics under more scrutiny” it’s a sure sign the no reform will occur other than making athletic programs LESS excellent and more ridiculous and mediocre.

  5. > How to Prevent Another College Admissions Scandal

    College and university educations are fundamentally determined by “accreditation”.

    If a degree is deemed to be worth anything, it must come from an “accredited” college or university.

    Politicians will twiddle with the rules and policies of public colleges and universities until they get the “fairness” that they imagine the public demands. “Excellence in education” is someone else’s problem. California’s vast and expensive community college system looks today much more like a country club for millenials than a serious educational institution. The course catalogs are crammed with course offerings on every imaginable athletic and exercise activity, but precious few serious academic undertakings.

    REAL reform should be directed toward providing REAL education to those seeking real enlightenment or advancement.

    The accrediting agencies play a huge role by monitoring and defending the educational standards that colleges and universities CLAIM they are adhering to.

    When colleges and universities let the curricula be “dumbed down” by offering disproportionately “fun” and lightweight classes, educational standards are evaded.

    In order for educational standards to be sustained, unqualified people must be DENIED admission, underperformers must be expelled, incompetent faculty members must be discharged.

    REAL evaluations of student performance must be made, and REAL grades must be assigned, INCLUDING failing grades.

    In the modern era of socialization in place of education, and coddling in place of challenging, the “diploma” has become just a fancy parchment participation trophy.

    In a system with real education standards, it wouldn’t matter that unqualified “connected” or string-pulling students would gain admission, because at the end of the day, they would be found out and thrown out.

    The education system SHOULD allow motivated and qualified students to succeed AND free them from the burden of carrying and being held back by the phony and fake place holders.

    The KEY to education reform and to defeating the education system scammers is a real and serious accreditation system.

    When twenty or fifty elite educational institutions have their accreditations yanked, and the degrees they award become worthless — THEN — you will see universities and colleges begin paying attention to admitting students who can contribute to a collegial learning environment. The big donors can still have their names on buildings, But their thick and lazy children will just have to spend their education dollars on private tutors at Camp Dimwit.

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