California legislation inspired by college admissions scandal goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom

Students walk on the UCLA campus.
(Los Angeles Times)

California lawmakers have sent the governor a package of reforms sparked by the recent college admissions scandal, including a bill approved Wednesday that would require special admits at public universities to be approved by three administrators.

A quartet of measures approved by lawmakers were introduced after federal authorities charged 50 people with being part of a fraudulent scheme in which parents allegedly made large payments to buy their children entrance to elite universities on phony athletic admissions or rigged scores on exams.

“This scandal not only undermines the public’s trust in the college admissions process, but it further perpetuates the opportunity gap in our college system,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) said.

The state Assembly on Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a bill from McCarty that would require California State University officials to have at least three senior administrators approve special admissions starting in the 2020-21 academic year. The bill, which is based in part on recommendations by a University of California audit, requests that the standards also be adopted by the UC system, which is semi-autonomous.


Campuses would also be required to document which employees were involved in evaluating student applications and to put in writing the rationale for every admission by exception.

“The college admission process is one that needs checks and balances, which this bill will provide,” state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) said during debate over the bill.

McCarty said California was the “epicenter of the national scandal” with 25 of the 33 families in the initial indictment coming from the state.

Universities give “admission by exception” to students who fall short of the minimum admission requirements but have a special talent, such as athletic or performing arts skills, or are deemed disadvantaged.

Last year, the CSU system, which was not implicated in the scandal, enrolled 1,410 students by exception, including 924 students who were not disadvantaged. The number represents just over 1% of the new undergraduate enrollment in the prior year.

The measure sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom also requires that students admitted for athletic or fine arts programs participate in the programs for at least a year.

That provision is a response to reports that some students were given special admission because of faked athletic resumes and ended up not participating in any competitive sports events.

In one case, UCLA admitted a teenager from British Columbia with a soccer scholarship, but he didn’t play the sport and authorities allege he was given a special admission based on a $100,000 bribe to the soccer coach.

UC officials said they immediately launched a review of their admissions policies once the federal investigation was announced. UC has not taken a position on the McCarty bill, according to spokeswoman Sarah McBride, but work has begun to improve policies for special admissions.

“As the preeminent public higher education institution, we hold ourselves to the highest standards and have been taking proactive steps to strengthen our admissions practices and procedures, including admission by exception,” McBride said.

A separate measure sent to Newsom prohibits those found guilty in the college admissions scandal from benefiting from illegal charitable contributions or business expense deductions on their income taxes.

“The criminal actions have victimized hard working and low-income students who were denied admissions because of the actions of those involved — and they were able to do so at the expense of the California taxpayers,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who introduced the bill.

The bill was supported by the University of California, which said in a letter to lawmakers that it includes appropriate safeguards “and encourages a culture of fairness and equity on college campuses across the state.”

Lawmakers also approved legislation by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) that would require the two state university systems to report to legislative committees whether they provide preferential treatment in admission to applicants on the basis of their relationships to donors or alumni to the institutions.

“If we’re allowing CalGrants and other state-funded benefits to go toward a school, we need to ensure every applicant has a level playing field during the application process,” Ting said.

Ting said the many legal advantages wealthy families have in the college admission process, including private tutoring, can discourage other families “who already feel the odds are stacked against them.”

Separately, the Legislature approved a McCarty resolution, ACR 64, that asks the state’s two public university systems to study whether to phase out the use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and the American College Test, or ACT, as a basis for college admission.

McCarty noted some of the students involved in the recent scandal were admitted after others fraudulently took their admissions tests for them or gave them other improper help.

“For every student admitted through bribery and fraud, there was an honest and talented student that was rejected,” McCarty said.

The CSU system did not take a position on any of the bills approved by the Legislature, but has started to evaluate its own policies, according to spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp.

“We are conducting an internal review of admissions practices across all of the campuses and will be reporting that back to the CSU Trustees and the public likely in November,” he said.

The system is also holding ongoing internal discussions on the role of standardized tests, Uhlenkamp said, noting that first-time freshmen with GPAs above 3.0 who apply to nonimpacted campuses or programs are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores.

As governor, Newsom sits as an ex officio member of the CSU and UC boards. UC oversees UCLA, which has been at the center of the admissions scandal.

Newsom has been highly critical of those involved in the controversy.

“It’s a deeper issue than the bribery and holding these people to account, which they should be. It goes to the nature, again, of wealth,” Newsom told Buzzfeed in March.