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College admissions scandal prompts California lawmakers to move ahead with reforms

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Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) talks with a group of high school students after a news conference in March about a package of bills dealing with the college admissions scandal.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill aimed at preventing the kind of fraud perpetrated in this year’s college admissions cheating scandal, giving initial approval to tougher rules on special admissions to state universities.

The state Assembly approved AB 1383, which would prohibit the University of California and California State University systems from giving students special admittance, also known as “admission by exception,” without the approval of three college administrators.

The bill is part of a package of measures introduced in response to Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation that led to charges against dozens of people in connection with a scam in which wealthy parents allegedly made payments to get their sons and daughters special admission to elite universities or high scores on admission exams.

“We heard that some individuals in California were essentially bribing some public university officials to have their kids be a special admit on athletic teams and did not even play the sport,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who introduced the bill, during the floor debate Wednesday.

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According to McCarty, students can currently be admitted through a special process with only one college administrator approving the admission.

The federal case includes charges against coaches who worked at USC, Stanford, UCLA and other colleges.

“We need to make sure we protect the sanctity of the admissions process. One kid getting in through fraudulent means denies the right of another qualified California student,” McCarty said just before the unanimous vote to approve the bill and send it to the state Senate for consideration.

In a letter, UC system officials told lawmakers that less than 2% of admissions in recent years have been college applicants receiving exceptions to admission standards. That included 519 students last year.

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Cal State system policy allows admission by exception for disadvantaged applicants as well as for those with special skills, such as athletes. Last year, the system enrolled 1,410 students admitted by exception, about 1% of new undergraduate enrollment.

The Assembly previously approved and sent the Senate a bill by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) that could affect applicants who have a relationship to university donors or alumni. It would require public universities to annually inform the California Student Aid Commission about any admissions decisions that give preference to an application connected with such donors or alumni.

Ting’s proposal was originally tougher. It would have made universities that failed to comply ineligible to participate in the Cal Grant program, so students who receive Cal Grants would have had to use them at another institution.

Another bill approved by the Assembly and under consideration in the Senate would require the secretary of state to develop an electronic process for the registration of college consultants and college consulting firms.

The federal investigation alleged that college consultant William “Rick” Singer orchestrated the fraud scheme that involved college admissions. The probe also resulted in charges against actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, accusing them of making improper payments to benefit their children.

The Assembly also voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would prohibit taxpayers found guilty in the recent college admissions scandal from benefiting from income tax deductions from charitable contributions or business expenses related to the scheme.

“We can’t look the other way, and we need to take action,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who authored the measure.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99


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