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UC admitted 64 well-connected or rich students over more qualified ones, audit finds

A California state audit has criticized admissions practices at UCLA and other campuses.
A California state audit has criticized admissions practices at UCLA and other campuses.
(Los Angeles Times )

The University of California allowed “inappropriate factors” to influence admissions decisions, with four campuses admitting 64 students who had connections to donors or highly placed staff over more qualified applicants, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The audit — which scrutinized admissions practices over a six-year span, from the academic years 2013-14 through 2018-19, at UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara — found that the majority of admitted students were white, and at least half had annual family income of $150,000 or more. Among them, 22 applicants were admitted as athletes despite having demonstrated little athletic talent, the audit said.

UC Berkeley in particular came under fire, with auditors finding that the campus admitted an additional 42 applicants based on their connections to donors and staff, while denying admission to others who were more qualified. One was admitted after an “inappropriate letter of support” from an unnamed UC regent, the audit said. Seventeen applicants with ties to donors or potential donors won entry despite receiving uncompetitive ratings from application readers.

“By admitting 64 noncompetitive applicants, the university undermined the fairness and integrity of its admissions process and deprived more qualified students of the opportunity for admission,” California Auditor Elaine M. Howle wrote in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders.

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In a statement Tuesday, UC President Michael V. Drake said the system would promptly address the concerns raised in the audit and discipline individuals involved in improper activities. He added that the audit’s recommendations would advance progress UC has made in reforming its admissions process following two internal reviews.

“I take the findings and recommendations very seriously and will do all I can to prevent inappropriate admissions at UC,” Drake said. “I have zero tolerance in matters of compromised integrity. Our entire organization is committed to a level playing field for every applicant.”

UCLA and UC Berkeley said they were reviewing the audit, had made improvements in their admissions policies in recent years and were confident that their review processes were sound. UC Santa Barbara also said its recent reforms, such as faculty committee reviews of an athlete’s academic and athletic history, would prevent future problems.

UC San Diego said it reviewed the one case cited by auditors and found no evidence of a policy violation or “improper governmental act.”

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The audit revealed only broad contours of the cases and did not release students’ or parents’ names, when they were admitted, what happened to them or the university officials involved. It described instances in which applicants “were less qualified than other applicants to whom campuses denied admission.” These included an applicant who babysat for the colleague of the former director of undergraduate admissions, an applicant whose family was friends with a regent and the child of a prominent alumnus.

Among 22 cases involving student athletes, 13 involved UC Berkeley applicants. One, for instance, received the lowest possible admission score — a “do not recommend” — but was admitted after a donor relations staff member flagged the case to a coach, who falsely certified the student as a qualified athlete. Subsequently, the student’s family donated “thousands of dollars” to the team, but the student never competed in the sport, the audit found.

The audit flagged some 400 other athletics cases that raised questions because the students did not continue with the sport beyond one year. Howle said the students might have dropped out because of injuries or other legitimate reasons but added that UC should scrutinize such cases.

“While we know that there is always room for improvement — and that any policy depends on individuals acting with integrity — we have confidence that our current admissions policies and protocols are sound,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ.

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The audit marks the second state effort in the last four years to scrutinize UC’s admissions process, following a 2016 review of the impact of growing nonresident student enrollment on California applicants. The intense state interest in who gets a UC seat underscores the enormous demand for access to the nation’s most prestigious public research university system — particularly at the flagship campuses. UCLA, which draws the most applications of any university in the nation, admitted just 15,643 of 108,837 freshman applicants for fall 2020.

Overall, UC campuses admitted 149,461 students from among 215,162 applicants for fall of 2020. The four campuses examined by auditors collectively received 2.4 million applications during the period in question.

The state audit found more instances of questionable admissions than the two cases UC auditors uncovered in the system’s internal review of its nine undergraduate campuses, ordered last year by then-President Janet Napolitano in the wake of the national college admissions scandal.

The scandal, which has roiled colleges and sparked widespread public outrage, involved federal charges that business executives, two Hollywood actresses and a prominent fashion designer used fraud, bribes and lies to get their children into elite universities, including the University of Southern California, Yale and Stanford. In the UC system, UC Berkeley and UCLA were ensnared.

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The two-part UC review included a systemwide overview of controls in place to guard against admissions fraud and a deeper dive into actual campus admissions practices. The internal review resulted in several recommendations aimed at better policing potential fraud and conflicts of interest in admitting students. A UC spokeswoman said all campuses have implemented the required reforms, which include stronger verification of claims on students’ applications, reviews of potential links between donors and applicants and stricter scrutiny of those admitted for special talents, such as athletes and artists.

But Howle said the UC review under Napolitano fell short.

“The office of the president has allowed the weaknesses in these practices to persist because it has not conducted adequate oversight of campuses’ admissions processes,” she wrote. She said the internal review was flawed because it allowed campuses to evaluate themselves and did not attempt to identify inappropriate admissions activity.

The state audit was initially requested last year by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas). Horvath asked that state auditors identify, assess and test the risk of fraud in admissions practices at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. She also asked for information on whether selections are influenced by donations, connections or family relationships to alumni, known as “legacy” cases.

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In addition, Horvath asked for information about students admitted to the three schools under UC’s special admissions process, which gives extra consideration for athletic, artistic and other talents. The university’s internal review found that stronger oversight was needed, prompting campuses to centrally document the number of such students and their exceptional characteristics, along with a tighter two-step verification process to review and approve the cases. Overall, those admitted by “special exception” amounted to about 1.7% of students — 3,409 among 204,350 enrolled between fall 2017 and winter 2020, the UC review found.

The admissions scandal came to light last year, when federal prosecutors announced charges against Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, who admitted to masterminding a scheme to help affluent parents get their children into top-tier colleges by charging huge sums to rig entrance exams or pay coaches to designate the children as recruited athletes. Singer has pleaded guilty to several felonies.

Federal prosecutors have charged more than 50 college administrators, coaches and parents in the sprawling scheme at schools across the country.

Such cases of wealth and connections influencing admissions are, however, less prevalent at UC campuses than at many private universities. Among UC’s 285,000 students, 36% are low-income, and 40% are the first in their families to attend college. Four of the nation’s top five universities recognized for serving low-income students well are the UC campuses at Riverside, Irvine, Santa Cruz and Merced, according to rankings published this month by U.S. News & World Report. UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and UC San Diego were all ranked by the magazine among the nation’s top 10 public universities.

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Howle called for stronger centralized oversight by the UC office of the president and additional reforms, such as stricter scrutiny of student athletes and robust training for application readers, who were found to give widely divergent scores to student files.

“We have the utmost respect for the University of California, but we also have responsibility ... to speak the truth to power,” Howle said in an interview.


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