California Reforms College Admissions Following Bribery Scandal

A new law will require colleges to disclose whether their admissions process favors so-called "legacy" students related to donors or alumni.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Friday requiring colleges to disclose whether they give preferential treatment in admissions to applicants related to donors or alumni.

The bill, authored by Assembly member Phil Ting (D), came in response to the college admissions scandal earlier this year, which revealed that dozens of wealthy people allegedly paid bribes to get their kids into elite universities, including the University of Southern California; the University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford University and more. 

In mid-September, actor Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT score boosted. She was the first parent to be sentenced in the college admissions scam.

Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2020, public and private four-year colleges in the state would be required to share with legislators whether they give “any manner of preferential treatment” to applicants related to donors or alumni ― a policy known as “legacy admissions” ― and if so, report how many students were admitted under those practices. 

(The University of California system told HuffPost in March that its policies forbid legacy admissions.) 

“The recent college admissions scandal highlights the need for fair and transparent admissions processes, and concern for what is referred to as ‘back door’ admissions for legacy and donor-related applicants who collectively do not reflect the diversity of the state,” the bill reads.

The scheme, which became known as Operation Varsity Blues, involved wealthy parents paying to falsely boost their children’s exam scores or have their children apply as student-athletes even if they had no skills in the relevant sport.

Huffman pleaded guilty in May to having paid $15,000 to fraudulently boost her daughter’s SAT score. “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli have pleaded not guilty after being charged with paying $500,000 in bribes to get their daughters into USC as recruits on the crew team, though they were not crew athletes. 

The scheme also included dozens of other parents and top universities around the country, including Georgetown and Yale.

Newsom signed two other bills Friday related to Operation Varsity Blues.

One, authored by Sharon Quirk-Silva (D), bans individuals found guilty in the college admissions scheme from taking tax deductions on donations they made to help secure their children enrollment at a particular college.

A second, introduced by Kevin McCarty (D), would prohibit state universities from making admissions exceptions for prospective students who fall short of a school’s academic requirements (such as athletes or other students with special talents) unless three administrators approve.

He also signed a package of bills to increase access to financial aid across California.

After news of the admissions scandal broke, many pointed out that higher education admissions are already rigged to favor wealthy and white students ― even before reaching the point of criminality ― whether in the form of donations to schools or extra tutors, essay coaches and interview prep professionals who help the elite get their kids into Ivy League schools.

Legacy status, in particular, tips the scales heavily in an applicant’s favor ― and disproportionately benefits white students. 

At Harvard University, for instance, legacy applicants were accepted at nearly five times the rate of non-legacies ― with legacy applicants accepted at a rate of nearly 34% from 2009 to 2015, versus a rate of 5.9% for non-legacies in the same period, per NPR. 

“This scandal is just the extreme, the illegal extreme, but it’s in a continuum with legacy admissions … with all these other thumbs on the scale that wealthy kids get that are legal,” Susan Dynarski, professor of economics, education and public policy at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost in March.

“If you look around a college campus and you’re thinking about who got in because of a thumb on the scale, it’s the rich white legacy kids,” she added.

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