The University of California on Thursday released a sweeping list of recommendations aimed at better policing of fraud and conflicts of interest in admitting students — a process triggered by the national college admissions scandal.
The recommendations, which UC President Janet Napolitano now plans to implement, 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.
Napolitano said she ordered an internal audit to come up with the recommendations as a “proactive step” to protect the integrity of the UC system, the nation’s leading public research university.
“We have a responsibility to make sure we’re adhering to the highest standards where admissions are concerned,” she said in an interview with The Times. “It seemed, to me, timely and important to direct that we do our own evaluation of our admissions procedures to make sure that we are not only turning very square corners with students and their families, but also that we are bolstering our defenses against anyone who would try to game the admissions system.”
The national admissions scandal, which erupted in March, has roiled elite institutions across the nation, prompting pledges of reform amid widespread public anger and disgust.
Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer has admitted to masterminding a brazen scheme in which he charged affluent parents huge sums to rig their children’s entrance exams or to outright buy their entrance into top-tier colleges by paying coaches to designate students as recruited athletes. He has pleaded guilty to several felonies.
So far, two UC campuses — UCLA and UC Berkeley — have been ensnared in the fallout.
At UCLA, according to an indictment charging men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo with racketeering conspiracy, Singer paid Salcedo $200,000 to pass off two children of his clients as recruited soccer players. Nine days after the indictment was unsealed, Salcedo resigned from the coaching post he had held for 15 years. He has pleaded not guilty.
At UC Berkeley, at least one student was admitted with fraudulent test scores, prosecutors allege. David Sidoo, a Canadian businessman and former professional football player, is accused of paying Singer to fix entrance exams for his two sons. The younger of the two, Jordan Sidoo, attended UC Berkeley. David Sidoo, indicted on charges of fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, has pleaded not guilty.
The systemwide internal audit that Napolitano ordered looked at what controls campuses already had in place to guard against fraud but not how well they have used them. That question will be examined in a second audit to be completed by the end of this year.
Overall, Napolitano said, UC’s admission system works well in selecting the most qualified applicants. UC policy prohibits consideration of donations or family alumni — known as legacy applicants — in admissions decisions.
To qualify for admission, most California freshman applicants must speak English, complete a series of prescribed college-prep classes, have a minimum 3.0 GPA and submit SAT or ACT scores. Several other factors also are used for evaluation, including special talents and awards, location and life experience.
Last year, the system’s nine undergraduate campuses attracted about 223,500 applicants and admitted about 136,000 of them. UCLA, the most popular campus, admitted just 15.6% of 137,513 prospective freshmen and transfer applicants for fall 2018.
The UC system typically cancels about 100 applications each year because students don’t respond to requests to verify claimed achievements. Campuses also usually revoke fewer than half a dozen admission offers because of admitted falsification, UC officials say.
“We overall have good standards for admissions,” Napolitano said. “But one case is too many, and we really want to hold ourselves to a zero-tolerance standard.”
She said the area that needs the most scrutiny is special admissions, through which athletes, artists and others receive extra consideration for their talents.
The audit recommended stricter controls, many for the admission of recruited athletes who do not receive scholarships. The risk of fraud involving scholarship athletes, the review said, is significantly lower because NCAA rules “make it difficult for coaches to place those who are unqualified on a team roster.”
The audit proposes that the person who recommends the admission should verify the talent, and then a supervisor must approve it and send it on for a third-level review.
Other recommendations include a requirement that all recruited non-scholarship athletes be required to participate in the sport for at least a year — currently only UCLA and UC Berkeley require this — and be monitored for compliance.
Campuses also would be required to document all contacts between athletics personnel and those at higher risk of inappropriate influence, such as donors or admissions consultants, and review any donation to see whether it was made in connection with any non-scholarship recruited athlete. In addition, the audit recommends regular review of the athletic department’s slots to make sure they don’t exceed the number of student-athletes needed to fill rosters.
Napolitano said such safeguards, had they been in place before Singer launched his scams, “certainly would have improved the likelihood we would have uncovered” the UCLA scandal.
At UCLA, according to the indictment, Salcedo forwarded test scores and transcripts from Lauren Isackson, the daughter of a Hillsborough developer, to an unnamed “UCLA women’s soccer coach.” Isackson had never played soccer competitively, but her parents gave Singer 2,150 shares of Facebook stock — worth more than $250,000.
A UCLA committee approved Isackson to be admitted as a soccer recruit in 2016 on the condition that she play for at least one year, according to the indictment. Once she was admitted, Singer allegedly paid Salcedo $100,000, the indictment says.
No UCLA employees other than Salcedo have been charged. Bruce and Davina Isackson, the parents of Lauren Isackson, have pleaded guilty to charges of fraud conspiracy and tax evasion, and are cooperating with the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s investigation.
The audit also recommended stronger controls in the general admissions process. Currently, each campus verifies an applicant’s academic record by requiring transcripts and standardized test scores from schools. But campus officials do not independently check claims of non-academic achievements, such as awards or content in personal essays; a systemwide review randomly verifies that information on about 1,000 applications annually. The audit recommends checking more of them.
Other recommendations include stronger checks and balances to prevent conflicts of interest by evaluators who know an applicant or have a vested interest in boosting admissions from particular high schools — say, a teacher or counselor helping UC read applications.
A single evaluator should not be allowed to both read an application and approve an admission, as sometimes occurs at some campuses, according to the audit. And the reason for approving an admission should be better documented.
The UC system also plans to ban communication between development and admissions offices regarding specific applicants, require periodic reviews of donations, and tighten access to IT systems to guard against an unauthorized person changing admissions decisions.
Napolitano said she planned to immediately implement all of the audit’s recommendations and follow up as campuses develop individual action plans this summer to launch in the coming academic year.
“We share the outrage and concerns over fraudulent activity to try to gain admission at public and private universities across the nation,” she said. “We will stay proactive, transparent and accountable on this very important issue.”