College admissions scandal has California lawmakers taking aim at 'side doors'

Other proposals include denying Cal Grants — the state's financial aid program — to schools that offer preferential decisions for donors, and phasing out standardized tests.
Image: University of California Royce Hall
Students walk past Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Westwood section of Los Angeles on April 25, 2019.Jae C. Hong / AP

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By Savannah Smith

In the wake of the $25 million college admissions cheating scandal in which 50 people were criminally charged, California lawmakers are attempting to crack down on the so-called side door that allowed wealthy parents to engineer their children's acceptance to elite universities.

The six-bill legislative package, put forth in the State Assembly on March 28, takes aim at certain college admissions practices like the one exploited in the scheme, in which coaches can select a number of students who might not get in otherwise as athletic recruits, essentially guaranteeing their acceptance.

For years, parents paid the plot's admitted mastermind, William Rick Singer, about $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to "designate their children as recruited athletes," according to the court papers. Singer said he has helped provide 761 families with "side doors" to admission. The plot involved students who sought to attend four California schools — Stanford, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of San Diego, and the University of Southern California — as well as other schools across the country, though the universities themselves were not a target of the investigation, according to authorities.

"I think some of the reforms are probably happening behind the scenes, but it’s important for the legislature to speak up as well," Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty said, "which is why even though the universities are talking about policing themselves, we think it’s an appropriate conversation for the lawmakers to get engaged as well."

McCarty's Assembly Bill 1383 aims to tighten this sort of "admission by exception" policy that allows University of California system schools to admit students who do not meet traditional academic eligibility requirements but who are determined to have the potential to succeed. Athletic recruits can fall under that category, though another example could be students who are home-schooled and therefore don't have formal transcripts, according to UC's admissions website.

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"Maybe their life circumstances have prevented them living up to their promise. The list is endless," the website says.

State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty speaks onstage after the San Francisco premiere of "Warning: This Drug May Kill You" in San Francisco on April 20, 2017.FilmMagic for HBO file

McCarty's legislation, which would only apply to the state's public universities, would require these types of admissions to have the approval of a minimum of three administrative staff members — with the hope that one of those staffers would uncover any attempt to game the system.

“When a soccer coach asks the admissions team to let in somebody who allegedly has soccer talent but they’re not getting an athletic scholarship but they're just getting into the university, then we should have double or triple checking to make sure that person is legitimately a soccer player," McCarty told NBC News.

Proposals from other lawmakers include asking the State Auditor to review the University of California's admissions process for risks of fraud,denying Cal Grants — the state's financial aid system — to schools that offer preferential decisions for donors and alumni and phasing out the use of standardized tests, given that the scheme also involved parents who allegedly conspired to help their unwitting children cheat on their college exams. Three of the bills moved forward Tuesday after a vote in the Assembly's Higher Education committee, including the one that would punish schools for giving preference to donors and alumni.

After news of the scandal broke in March, most of the schools caught up in it said they would launch internal reviews of their admissions processes or calling on outside counsel for help investigating the matter. Stanford, which did not respond to a request comment on the legislative proposals, rescinded the admission of students whose parents were charged, while USC has denied admission to prospective students whose parents were indicted during the 2019 admissions cycle. USC declined to comment on the legislation, instead referring back to their original statement on the scandal, in which they pledged to investigate and take action. UCLA and USD did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Some higher education groups took issue with the Cal Grants proposal, which could affect the private schools, as well. When that bill was announced, Kristen Soares of The Association of Independent California Colleges released a statement saying her organization was "greatly disappointed in the introduction of a proposed bill in the Legislature today that would have significant unintended consequences, and ultimately hurt low-income students and their access to higher education."

"It’s one of the only interfaces we have with the private institutions," Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting, who proposed the legislation, said in an interview. "We don’t have legal authority over them. So, it’s one of the few places where we interface and interact with the private universities."

Others say the package, while a good step, doesn't go far enough. Policymakers play an important role to "ensure that our state resources are being used with legitimacy, for the benefit of all," Michele Siqueiros, who advocates for equal access to higher education as president of the California-based non-profit College Campaign Opportunity, said. But the measures won't fully address the larger issues of inequality plaguing the college admissions process, she added.

Siqueiros urged lawmakers to back educational funding that benefits lower income students as well as "greater support in K12 education for college counselors to support the majority of students who have no ability to finance a college consultant to help them navigate the process."

"I think it [the scandal] is certainly a wake up call for institutions if they weren’t paying attention previously," she said, "to ensure that their admission systems are fair and that they can prevent any one or two rogue individuals from doing criminal activity and allowing students to enter through side doors that should have been never opened to them."

"This scandal is a reminder to us that the decks are stacked against, especially low-income students who don’t have access to power and privilege in a way that many families — all the families obviously implicated in this scandal — clearly did," she said.