By Felicia Mello/CALmatters
When state legislators grilled University of California staff at a hearing last week about the agency’s response to the recent college admission 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 alumnus. The scandal stung all the more given the massive demand among Californians for a UC degree. Three Marin County parents were caught up in the scandal.
Though the March 22 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 policy allows campuses to admit up to 6 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 in late March, 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 say they don’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.
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,” says 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 says, 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,” says McCarty.
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.
Marin State Assemblyman Marc Levine’s got a pretty good idea going this week. He introduced AB 1648 on Tuesday in an effort to streamline the state-mandated environmental review for affordable housing that’s build on local school district surplus properties.
The idea, of course, is to bring teachers and, perhaps, parents closer to the schools they work at or send their kids to. The bill would give authority school districts to provide housing preference for teachers, who often cannot afford to live where they work in pricey Marin. Levine’s bill takes aim at the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by requiring approvals of affordable housing projects on school district owned properties within seven months of the filing of a certified record of the CEQA proceedings with a court. That’s a long way of saying that his bill would limit or eliminate costly lawsuits from neighbors who may disapprove of the affordable housing plan.
In a statement, Levine notes that the same CEQA rule applies to the building of sports stadiums and called on lawmakers to expedite the process for affordable housing too. Marin Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke’s in favor of the local pols’ latest legislative push as she notes that having affordable-housing options for teachers and staff “will enable our schools to attract and retain a quality workforce,” she says. ”Our students deserve the very best educational opportunities and retaining qualified staff is paramount to making this happen.”
Napa State Senator Bill Dodd’s got a pretty good idea, too, that’s now making its way through Sacramento’s committee process. SB 290 would, for the first time, allow the State of California to take out an insurance policy on itself in the (pretty likely) event of future wildfires or other disasters. “Why doesn’t the state have disaster insurance to reduce its financial exposure,” he asks, non-rhetorically.
Dodd’s bill is co-sponsored by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and state Treasurer Fiona Ma. The bill authorizes their agencies, and the governor’s office, to “enter into an insurance policy that pays out when California has unexpected disaster costs.” It would basically work like a home insurance policy.
Dodd notes in a statement that this is how they do it in Oregon, not to mention at the World Bank. They’ve both used insurance policies to protect taxpayers from financial exposure after a disaster, though it’s unclear when Oregon has faced a big disaster of any kind, besides those freakish neo-Nazis of Portland. OK, that time Mt. St. Helena blew up, that was pretty bad.
40 Years Ago
Three men from Mill Valley can’t find any sane reason for marijuana being illegal and they are doing their best to help repeal the 1937 state law against marijuana and hashish. The three are Stephen Samuels, Richard Moon and Paul Ehrlich. They’re spearheading the northern California campaign to circulate enough petitions to qualify for the June 1980 ballot.
Just think of what the tax-poor cities and the county of Marin could do with the cannabis sales tax, folks. Our worries would be over.
But what bothers the proponents of the initiative even more is that it costs $600 million tax dollars a year to enforce outdated marijuana laws. “It’s a $48 billion industry gone underground, untaxed,” said Samuels this week as he distributed quantities of petitions around the county.
—Joanne Williams, March 23–29, 1979
50 Years Ago
The county’s intrepid dope squad came up with two intriguing, if not particularly weighty, raids. Nailed were a cleaning place in Larkspur where LSD was allegedly being dispensed, and a birthday party in San Rafael where the cook had purportedly improved on Alice B. Toklas and her marijuana brownies by putting grass in the birthday cake. However, out in West Marin the raiders drew a complete blank. A ten-man swoop on a ranch house provided not so much as a single marijuana seed.
—Newsgram, March 23, 1969