Do California colleges favor applicants with donor ties? Law would require disclosure

Months after the college scandal that exposed questionable admissions practices benefiting wealthy and well-connected families, a bill was sent Tuesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom to address concerns with the college admissions process.

Assembly Bill 697 would require colleges to disclose to the state whether they give preferential admissions treatment to applicants related to a donor or alumni of the university. The legislation would force public and private four-year colleges to release data about the number of donors who had family members apply to the university, and the admission rates for those applicants compared to applicants without donor ties. Names of applicants would not be disclosed, under the proposed law.

The proposal from Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, emerged in response to the high-profile university scandal in March dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” Sacramento resident William Rick Singer was charged with facilitating cheating on the SAT and ACT exams in exchange for monetary bribes.

Coaches at several universities took bribes to admit student athletes, many of whom were not competitive enough for acceptance.

TV actress Lori Loughlin, known for her role on “Full House,” reportedly paid $500,000 in bribes to have her two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California’s crew team. Another actress, Felicity Huffman, is also named in the investigation.

The plot involved top universities across the nation, including Georgetown University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of San Diego, USC, the University of Texas, Wake Forest and Yale.

Ting told The Sacramento Bee he was surprised by the “blatant bribery” Operation Varsity Blues had revealed.

“We all know that donors probably get some level of preferential treatment,” Ting said. “It’s really unclear how much they get from one institution to the next. We truly didn’t think that people were literally buying their way into college in quite this brazen of a way.”

USC made news this week when court documents revealed how it tracked applicants’ ties to big donors. Spreadsheets, along with emails discussing applicants, were made public Tuesday after prosecutors obtained them from the university, according to the New York Times. The university tried to block a subpoena asking for a number of applicants identified as “special interest” from a parent charged in the scandal. USC did acknowledge, however, that some applicants are identified as “special interest,” including those throughout the athletics department, the Times reported.

Ting said “data transparency” is key to determine a fair and equitable admissions process. According to Ting, several private universities in California are not publishing this information.

“Much of the information we have regarding alumni, athletics and admissions is really anecdotal or if we saw something on the university website,” he said. “It’s actually very difficult to get this information on an annual basis, except for the public university. The private universities really don’t publish this type of information. They don’t really break it down to this level of granularity. I think this will be groundbreaking legislation and make it clear whether or not donors and athletes are receiving significantly greater preferential treatment.”

Newsom has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. If he does, AB 697 would take effect at the start of next year.

Other lawmakers have made proposals in response to the admissions scandal, including a resolution to study phasing out the use of SAT and ACT exam scores for admissions, and a request to audit the University of California’s admissions polices and practices.

The University of California has not taken a position on the bill. UC has a policy that prohibits “admissions motivated by concern for financial, political or other such benefit to the University,” which is posted on the Board of Regents’ website.

A UC Davis spokeswoman confirmed the policy bars “legacy” as well as donor-based admissions. “We do not grant preferential admission to the children of alumni or donors, nor have we in the past,” said Melissa Lutz Blouin in an email to The Bee. “In fact, we do not ask students about family members’ alma maters in the application process and therefore do not have that information, much less consider it.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.
Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.