State Audit Finds Fraud, Lack of Transparency in UC Admissions

Auditor: Analysis of admissions records, donations, and athletics participation at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and UC San Diego from academic years 2013–14 through 2019–20.

By Trevor Brandon-Harris

SACRAMENTO – A report released by the California State Auditor on Tuesday alleged serious flaws in the undergraduate admissions processes at four of the University of California’s campuses that have “undermined the fairness and integrity” of UC admissions.

The State Auditor, that reviewed admissions procedures at UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara, found “definitive evidence” that the campuses improperly admitted a combined 64 noncompetitive applicants because of their connections with donors or staff, and suggested the actual number of improper admissions may be much higher.

The audit, which investigated the six-year period between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 academic years, further found that campuses “have not adequately trained or supervised the reviewers who rate applications” and that the University of California “cannot claim that every student who applies will receive fair and consistent treatment” because of a lack of transparency surrounding thousands of admissions decisions.

Noting that the 64 improperly admitted applicants were mostly white and came from disproportionately high-income families, the report was also critical of the UC Office of the President’s failure to monitor high school participation in the Eligible in the Local Context program, which aims to recruit students from high schools whose graduates are underrepresented on UC campuses.

“Weak process and inadequate oversight”

The California State Legislature commissioned the audit after federal prosecutors charged more than 50 parents, admissions consultants and university staff for taking part in a nationwide admissions fraud scheme.

Among those charged was UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, who pleaded guilty in July to receiving $200,000 in bribes in exchange for fraudulently designating two UCLA applicants as student-athletes.

Tuesday’s report found evidence that officials at all four audited UC campuses falsely designated a total of 22 applicants, all of whom lacked athletic qualifications and did not meaningfully participate in their respective sports, as student-athletes “because of donations from or as favors to well-connected families.”

Such a designation can represent a virtual guarantee of admission – at UCLA, which has an overall 14 percent acceptance rate, the committee responsible for student-athlete applications admits 98 percent of the applicants it reviews.

The report further stated that “multiple members of management” at UC Berkeley violated campus policy by working to improperly admit at least 42 additional unqualified students because of their connections with campus staff and donors.

In one case, a UC Regent wrote a letter to UC Berkeley’s Chancellor on behalf of a waitlisted student, who was admitted after the letter was forwarded by campus staff to the admission’s office.

Berkeley’s admissions staff were also allegedly able to add applicants, several of whom had connections to donors, staff and faculty, to a “prospect list” which entitled them to additional consideration in the admissions process.

The report slammed campuses’ “inadequate oversight of athletics” and “weak” admissions processes and recommended that the UC Office of the President implements reforms which would require campuses to more closely monitor admissions decisions and that it assume direct oversight over UC Berkeley’s admissions process for at least three years to ensure its integrity.

I spoke via email to a Berkeley student who was recruited by the university as a student-athlete.

She called the possibility of unqualified students having taken away opportunities from more deserving ones “disappointing,” especially given how much she had sacrificed to earn a genuine spot on her team.

Deficiencies that “cast doubt on the fairness” of thousands of admissions decisions

The state’s audit also reviewed the broader admissions policies of UC Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego, raising further questions about admissions decisions at all three campuses.

The audit found that in spite of guidance from the system-wide Academic Senate committee responsible for undergraduate admissions, UC Berkeley and UCLA have not developed clear criteria for selecting applicants and were therefore unable to fully explain why some applicants who received low ratings from reviewers were accepted while others were rejected.

The report further criticized campuses for failing to adequately train and monitor application readers.

In training sessions, UC Berkeley’s readers rated only 60 percent of practice applications correctly on the campus’ three-point scale.

The audit noted that inconsistent ratings from readers can have a huge impact – at UCLA’s College of Letters and Science, 93 percent of applicants who received ratings of “Strongly Recommend” from both readers were admitted, but only 31 percent of applicants who received a split rating of “Strongly Recommend” and “Acceptable for Admission” was ultimately admitted.

The audit also faulted campuses for providing readers with demographic information about students, including their names, native languages and gender, that might allow implicit biases to influence the ratings of applicants.

The State Auditor was especially critical of the system-wide Office of the President, which was headed by Janet Napolitano for most of the period reviewed by the audit. The report argued that the office “has not used its position as the university’s central oversight entity to detect and prevent deficient admissions practices,” and recommended that it begin to conduct regular admissions audits.

The report further accused the Office of the President of having “neglected” the Eligibility in the Local Context program, which guarantees UC admission to the top 9 percent of participating California high schools’ graduating classes.

It determined that 30 percent of eligible schools, including 175 schools with populations that are at least 75 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged, did not participate in the program in 2019, and that the office had not contacted the schools to encourage them to participate.

UC’s Response

In an Aug. 27 letter responding to a draft of the report, newly appointed UC President Michael V. Drake affirmed the University of California’s commitment to “safeguarding the integrity of its admissions practices.”

He also suggested that the report’s recommendations are “similar” to those identified by internal UC audits conducted since the scandal and that UC has “largely implemented” those recommendations.

The State Auditor responded to Drake’s letter in its final report by arguing that its recommendations were “stronger” than those made by the university’s February internal audit and that the report had addressed “serious deficiencies” that the internal audit left unidentified.

In a statement provided to the Associated Press after the final report was released, President Drake said he takes the audit’s recommendations “very seriously,” adding that “unethical means to gain admission, as rare as they may be, run contrary to our longstanding values of equity and fairness.”

Drake further pledged that “the University will swiftly address the concerns the State Auditor raised,” and that “individuals involved in improper activities will be disciplined appropriately.”

In a separate statement, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Crist pledged to “get to the bottom of” the report’s “highly disturbing allegations of improper conduct in [UC Berkeley’s] undergraduate admissions work.”

Crist said that the allegations, “if true,” run contrary to UC Berkeley’s values, but that the campus was still waiting to receive “the underlying documents that led to the state auditor’s findings” so that it could conduct its own investigation.

Despite the report’s findings, Crist said UC Berkeley is confident that its “current admissions policies and protocols are sound,” pointing to a number of reforms that she said have been made within the admissions and athletics departments in recent years.


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