State Auditor Finds University of California Admissions Process Allowed Improper Influence on Decision-Making

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Over the course of six academic years, the University of California’s admissions process has allowed for improper influence in admissions decisions by unfairly admitting 64 applicants based on their personal or family connections to donors and university staff, a new state audit found.

Elaine M. Howle, California’s state auditor, spearheaded the report, which reviewed academic years 2013-14 through 2018-19 and encompassed campus admission practices for the UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego campuses, as well as the admission of athletes at those campuses and the UC Santa Barbara campus.

The audit concluded that a majority of the 64 applicants who were admitted were white, and at least half had annual family incomes of $150,000 or more.

“Campuses admitted 22 of these students through their student-athlete admissions processes, even though the students did not have the athletic qualifications to compete at the university,” Howle wrote in a letter summarizing the audit’s findings, which was directed by the state. “UC Berkeley admitted the remaining 42 students, most of whom were referred to the admissions office because of their families’ histories as donors or because they were related or connected to university staff, even though their records did not demonstrate competitive qualifications for admission.”

The audit follows last year's bombshell FBI investigation into a college admissions bribery and fraud scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” which led to federal charges being brought against a wide array of parents, college coaches, and administrators, and implicated a number of high-profile higher education institutions, including UC Berkeley and UCLA.

“By admitting 64 noncompetitive applicants, the university undermined the fairness and integrity of its admissions process and deprived more qualified students of the opportunity for admission,” Howle said.

The audit also included a list of recommendations for the university’s Office of the President to make during the admissions cycle for the 2021-22 academic year, which included to verify students’ athletic talent and establish predetermined criteria for the admissions process.

The audit also faulted the university’s Office of the President for not safeguarding the admissions process, stating that weaknesses in the system were due to a lack of oversight that has persisted for years. 

“As the executive agency of the university, the Office of the President is best positioned to safeguard the fairness and consistency of the system’s admissions processes by setting minimum procedural requirements that align with best practices and by performing periodic reviews of the campuses’ admissions practices. However, the Office of the President has not consistently performed these key tasks,” the audit said. “Most troubling is that the Office of the President has not established a minimum set of systemwide protocols and procedures to protect against impropriety, despite having evidence that the campuses’ admissions processes are susceptible to inappropriate activity.”

In an. August 27 response to the audit, University of California President Michael Drake pledged to take prompt action to the findings and stated that many of the highlighted recommendations were similar to an internal audit completed in the past year.

“I have zero tolerance on matters of integrity, and will do everything I can to ensure inappropriate admissions do not happen on any of our campuses,” Drake wrote. “To that end, I appreciate the State Auditor’s assistance in providing the relevant underlying data and information supporting the audit’s conclusions. The University will then be able to take additional appropriate action as necessary and maintain the highest standards in our admissions processes.”

The state auditor’s office refuted some of the claims in Drake’s response, saying the university’s internal audit “did not address significant aspects of the admissions process that we reviewed during our audit.” 

“Furthermore, our recommendations are stronger than those made by the university’s internal audit and address serious deficiencies that it did not identify,” the state auditor’s office said. “Left unaddressed, these issues will continue to harm qualified applicants who apply to the university.


Publication Date: 9/23/2020

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