Ethical College Admissions: The UC Audit

The University of California has work to do to reassure applicants and the public about fairness, writes Jim Jump.

October 19, 2020
University of California, Berkeley

Should college admission offices, like cellphone providers and auto manufacturers, have a family and friends “discount”? How important are fairness and consistency in admission decisions? Do public universities have a different set of moral obligations than private universities?

Those are among the questions raised by a recent audit of the admissions process at four campuses of the University of California. The audit, conducted by the office of California State Auditor Elaine Howle, focused on the risk of improper influence on admission decisions. It was commissioned by state legislators following revelations that UC colleges had inappropriately admitted two students and that a former University of California, Los Angeles, men’s soccer coach had pleaded guilty to accepting bribes as part of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. The university had previously conducted its own internal review.

Howle’s review was focused on four campuses -- UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. It found that from 2013-14 through 2018-19, there were 64 applicants with academic records that made them noncompetitive for admission who were nevertheless admitted due to their personal or family connections to donors or staff members at the university. Fifty-five of the 64 occurred at Berkeley, the flagship UC campus.

In the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, the “side door” used by mastermind Rick Singer took advantage of vulnerabilities in athletic recruiting, largely involving walk-on spots in low-profile sports, and that was the starting point (but not the ending point) for Howle’s audit. The investigation was not comprehensive, but Howle’s team reviewed student athlete admissions for at least six sports teams at each of the four campuses and found 22 instances where coaches labeled applicants as prospective student athletes who had neither the requisite academic nor athletic qualifications to compete. Thirteen of those were at Berkeley, four each at UCLA and Santa Barbara, and one at San Diego.

The report makes clear that the 22 identified cases likely only scratch the surface, given that it “reviewed athletes for only a fraction of the athletic teams at each of the campuses.” Even with that limited scope, the audit identified more than 400 athletes who did not appear on team rosters for more than a year, some of whom had “limited or nonexistent athletic qualifications” and others related to donors or campus staff members.

Just as with Operation Varsity Blues, the inappropriate UC admission cases were a consequence of inadequate oversight of athletic admissions. Admission offices have trusted coaches and athletic administrators to vet and verify the credentials of athletic recruits, and while the report finds that the majority of athletes admitted meet the university’s eligibility requirements, it is also the case that in 2019-20 the average grade point average for admitted athletes at UCLA was 3.74, well below the 4.15 average GPA for the bottom quartile of all admitted students. From 2017-18 through 2019-20, the committee that reviews student athlete applicants at UCLA approved 98 percent of cases. According to the report, the director of athletic compliance at Berkeley says that verifying the credentials of all athletic recruits would strain the athletic department’s resources. That is much more the case today given the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Incentives for slipping unqualified children of the wealthy into the university as recruited athletes are built into the system. Many coaches of lower-profile sports at UC campuses are responsible for fundraising for their teams, and what easier way to raise money than offer a slot to a student whose parents will make a large donation to the coach’s program? Of course, that raises larger questions about whether a donation in exchange for an admissions slot is philanthropy or bribery. The advancement side of the house doesn’t want to touch that issue, but U.S. senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has proposed legislation that would outlaw donors being able to deduct donations that are either directly or coincidentally tied to college admission.

The state audit found that improper influence on admissions decisions did not come solely from athletics. It found another 42 cases at UC Berkeley where staff members intervened on behalf of applicants based on their relationships to donors, university staff members and personal friends. That was in opposition to stated campus policy.

Seventeen of the 42 were connected to donors or potential donors based on referrals from the university’s development office. At least five of them had received the lowest possible ratings from both of the application readers. Another 11 were admitted because of connections to staff members at Berkeley or in the UC system. At least one of those was the child of an admissions dean at a private college, while another had served as a babysitter for a colleague. The final 14 were admitted off the waiting list, with one benefiting from an “inappropriate letter of support” from a university regent, subsequently identified as the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein.

I found the involvement of admission officers in seeking and giving favors the most troubling part of the report, for two reasons. Whereas in Operation Varsity Blues no admission professionals were implicated, here you have admission officers benefiting friends and family members at the expense of their ethical obligations to their institution and to the profession.

That behavior is particularly egregious at a public university. It is objectionable enough for a private institution to decide that it will reward applicants who are already privileged for business reasons, but public colleges and universities have a special moral obligation to serve the citizens of their state -- all the citizens of their state -- with equity and fairness. The behavior is made even worse by the fact that UC Berkeley is one of the nation’s most selective universities. Improper influence in the admissions process is not a victimless crime. The students being admitted despite being noncompetitive are taking a place in the university from another, more deserving state resident.

The final part of the audit report deals with the lack of processes to ensure fairness and consistency in the reading and rating of applications. Each of the three campuses evaluated (Santa Barbara was examined only with regard to athletic admission) has two readers rate every freshman applicant, with each campus having a slightly different scale.

Those ratings can make a huge difference. The report points out that an applicant to UCLA receiving two ratings of “strongly recommend,” the second-highest rating, have a 93 percent chance of admission, whereas one rating of “strongly recommend” and one of “acceptable for admission” (the next ranking) drops a student’s chances to 31 percent.

The problem is that both training and monitoring of readers is spotty. Last year readers at Berkeley collectively correctly evaluated 60 percent of the practice applications they reviewed. Even with a generous 10-point scale, that’s a D-minus. A comparison of three readers for Berkeley showed huge differences in rating tendencies. One reader strongly recommended 35 percent of candidates and did not recommend 45 percent, whereas another strongly recommended only 6 percent and did not recommend 80 percent. There is also an issue with potential implicit bias, as the applications contain personal and demographic information that might sway a reader. The second Berkeley reader can see the first reader’s rating.

The audit concludes that the university “cannot claim that every student who applies will receive fair and consistent treatment.” That is a laudable ambition, but is it realistic or achievable?

It requires moving away from the premise of admitting and crafting a class that achieves an institution’s strategic goals rather than admitting individuals. That approach is great for institutions, but it also means that not every applicant receives equal consideration in the admissions process. Should they?

Can an admissions process be fair and objective without being formulaic? Clearly a holistic approach to admission allows for a broader view of a student’s strengths, but as long as humans are evaluating, there will be subjectivity built in. Many philosophers would argue that objectivity is an outdated concept, that objectivity is ultimately about recognizing one’s subjective biases and assumptions.

I hope that the California audit will result in serious introspection and discussion not only at the University of California, but also within the profession as a whole.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.



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