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The dirty little secret of college admissions – irregularities in the admission procedure at the University of California

In the aftermath of an expose by the Los Angeles Times that some students were admitted to the University of California at the request of prominent people, a report by the university was recently released.


Rather than silencing the debate, the report drove home one of the dirty little secrets of college admissions — that when it comes to admitting students who otherwise couldn’t get in, friends and relatives of prominent people are the first ones to take advantage of special admittance procedures. This has long been true at private colleges, where “legacies,” or children of alumni, have had first preference and requests from large donors are respectfully granted.


But public colleges are supposed to be immune from that sort of influence. The report on the University of California, which recently voted to eliminate race as a factor in admissions, shows that is not so.


The study, titled “Report on Campus Practices Related to Admissions Inquiries by Prominent Individuals,” examined the admissions of the past five years. Records from before then have been destroyed. Approximately 215 annual inquiries were made on behalf of undergraduate applications by prominent individuals, of whom about 15 a year appeared to have received special treatment.


Those who attempted to influence the admissions process included UC Regents, legislators, high government or corporate figures, and major donors. The report, which was ordered by UC president Richard Atkinson and conducted by UC provost C. Judson King, showed that most of the inquiries about undergraduate applications occurred at UCLA, Berkeley and UC Davis, the most prestigious of the campuses. Total inquiries about graduate and professional school applications were approximately ten per year for the entire UC system.


During the time period analyzed, approximately 60 applicants may have or did receive preferential treatment as a result of inquiries or letters from prominent individuals. According to the Los Angeles Times, both Atkinson and King had themselves handled some of the admissions cases in question.


The report concludes that while nothing was done improperly, the university should establish a clear policy so that there are no misinterpretations in the future. The report recommends the following:


additional safeguards to assure the integrity of the admissions process should be instituted so that no external factor is allowed to exercise undue or improper influence on the outcome of admissions decisions;


procedures regarding handling and use of letters of recommendation in undergraduate admissions should be clarified and published in University materials; and


clear guidelines to govern appeals of negative undergraduate admissions decisions should be developed and published.


 However, administrators within the admissions community say that the issue, which comes within the context of the heated affirmative action debate, is not one that will go away soon. For one thing, the report only documented cases where there is a paper trail. But that may not tell the full story.


Many high-level administrators in the field of admissions say that preferential treatment is widespread and involves not simply VIPs from outside colleges and universities but also VIPs from within the institutions. Many of those who spoke about this phenomenon requested anonymity, fearing retaliation.


Preferential treatment for VIPs sometimes comes under the guise of “special admissions” or “admissions by exemption,” categories traditionally used for affirmative action or students with hardships or special talents, for example, athletes, artists, musicians.Some of these special slots go directly to departments. At UC, at the undergraduate level, regental policy allows chancellors the discretion of admitting six percent of the newly enrolled freshmen and six percent of newly enrolled transfer students by exception.


Administrators say that students can be certified as having a special hardship or special talent and be admitted into this category without a trace of outside interference. Another instance where influence can take place is during the appeals process, where the same kinds of exceptions can be made.


Several administrators said that another way to admit students is for the VIP to make a verbal request to the head of the college or university. At that point, a chancellor or president can make a re quest, leaving no paper trail of the original VIP. Also, students can receive preferential treatment if the action is initiated by VIPs within a college or university — either by the head of the admissions department or the top ranks of the university.


On paper, the file would show that the student was admitted because of a special hardship or because of a special talent. in these instances, there would be no paper trail. The bottom line, the administrators say, is that even if there is not a specific number of slots allotted per chancellor or other high officials, a chancellor can get a specific student in.

Furthermore, they insist that at a time of diminished resources–a smaller share of revenues from the state — similar situations will tend to increase at public colleges and universities nationwide. They point out that a close examination of the wording of the University of California report does not call for the abolition of outside influence but rather a clarification of the university’s admissions policies. The key lies in the definition of “undue and improper.” Under a new policy, outside influence may be defined as proper — for friends or relatives of VIPs.


Because of the trend toward relying on private donors, many administrators also say that outside influence will tend to increase as part of a yet-to-be determined policy as opposed to being a back door into the university.


These kinds of “special admits” will tend to increase not simply at the University of California, but at public colleges and universities across the country, admissions officials say. Legacy admissions — or preferential treatment in admissions to children or relatives of alumni, donors, relatives or friends of faculty, administrators and other “influentials,” as they are called, has always been a staple of private colleges and universities. However with the increasing pressure on public colleges and universities to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, chances are that the public institutions will be emulating the private ones in the realm of preferential admissions for VIPs.


Ed Apodaca, an administrator in enrollment services at the University of Houston and who was formerly at San Francisco State University, says that the UC scandal regarding special admissions for VIPs points to the false issue of “merit.”


Apodaca says that admission into the University of California — or other top colleges and universities for that matter — are related more closely to zip code than merit. About 100 California high schools (out of 1,500) account for about three-fourths of all admittances into the University of California, he says.



Carla Ferry, UC director of undergraduate admissions, agrees that the annual UC “Origin of Student” reports substantiate Apodaca’s claims, adding that 30 community colleges out of the state’s 106 community colleges produce 70 percent of UC’s transfer students. “This shows that zip code has more to do with getting admitted than merit,” she says. “Otherwise, class ranking would be given a high priority and the number of students from throughout the state would be equalized. in many New England schools, school ranking is taken into [admissions] consideration.”

Over at California State University, another public university system in California, Homer Montalvo, associate dean for admissions and records at CSU Bakersfield, says that CSU allows 2 percent of its entering freshmen and 4 percent of its transfer students to be admitted by exception. Of those slots, half of them are affirmative action or Educational Opportunities Program slots; the other half are reserved for athletes, musicians, spouses of faculty or other influentials, he says.


Additionally, says Montalvo, the public is under the misperception that EOP slots are reserved for Latinos and African Americans. “They’re not, EOP has reversed itself. It is now for first-generation college and low-income students.”


Undue influence also takes place at CSU campuses, particularly at the very competitive ones, says Montalvo. The tragedy, he says, is that when influential people, in or out of the university, make requests, they do so on behalf of students who would probably succeed in college without such intervention. Often no one goes to bat for the truly needy, the ones with the hardships who could also succeed at a college if given a chance.


The real issue in all this is that people of color and the poor are losing out on an opportunity to go to college, says Montalvo. When CSU Bakersfield had 1200 students 12 years ago, EOP had 160 slots, he says. Today, the college has 5,000 students and the same number of EOP slots. The anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant atmosphere is creating pressure to reduce the EOP slots, he says. “There’s a lot of griping from the faculty.”


Enrique Morales, director of undergraduate diversity at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that leverage for children of alumni exists nationwide. Because people of color going to college is a more recent occurrence, “legacy admissions don’t favor first generation students,” a category into which African-American and Hispanic students often fall.


Despite the recent controversy at the University of California, several UC administrators expect the university to unveil a new policy which will increase the allocation of special admission slots for influential individuals. These preferential admissions may not exactly be quid pro quo arrangements, but people who donate millions of dollars will increasingly want something in return for their money, one administrator said. And of course, this new policy will create an uproar, they say.


These slots, which are not many, are called add-ons, says one administrator; in effect, they don’t take away slots from anyone, but rather are simply added on to the number of enrollment slots allotted per university. Other administrators say that the California State University system will also follow suit.


Irma Archuleta an administrator at California State University at Long Beach said that in these extremely competitive times, colleges such as CSULB are moving away from educating working class students and instead are recruiting the state’s top students. This, coupled with increasing tuition and less financial aid, means people of color will suffer.


Archuleta states that that’s the real threat. While new policies make middle class students eligible for financial aid, the awards granted are not large enough for poor students to meet their financial obligations. In this realm, the poor — which often means Latinos and African Americans — are being squeezed out of college, says Archuleta.


John Schaeffer, public information director at FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, says that the issues exposed by the UC scandal are true nationwide, adding that preferential treatment for the rich and powerful has always been the norm.


The practices of preferential treatment exposed at UC are “but the tip of the iceberg regarding back-door admissions,” says Schaeffer. However, he says that the notion of returning to merit-based admissions is pure fantasy, given that legacy admissions were even more common in the past than today. Only when people of color and women started entering college in large numbers did universities start relying on test scores for admissions and relating them to “merit,” he says.


As competitiveness increases and state revenues decrease, it is likely that preferential treatment for VIPs will increase. However, the larger battle in the admissions controversies, as Schaeffer and Apodaca argue, will be over what constitutes merit. And the answer will most likely be arrived at in the political arena as opposed to in academic halls.

Admission Trends 1995: Factors Influencing Admission Decisions




                                   Considerable    Moderate


                                     Importance     Importance




Grades In College


Preparatory Courses                    80%             10%


Admission Test Scores                   47%             38%


Grades in All Subjects                  41%             40%


Class Rank                              39%             33%


Essay/Writing Sample                    21%             34%


Counselor Recommendations               19%             48%


Teacher Recommendations                 18%             46%


Interview                               15%             30%


Work/Extracurricular Experiences         7%             35%


Ability to Pay                           3%              7%


Personal Recognition Programs


(e.g. listings in directories)          1%             12%






                                     Importance         None


Grades In College


Preparatory Courses                     7%              3%


Admission Test Scores                    9%              6%


Grades in All Subjects                  14%              5%


Class Rank                              19%               9


Essay/Writing Sample                    24%             21%


Counselor Recommendations               23%             10%


Teacher Recommendations                 23%             13%


Interview                               34%             22%


Work/Extracurricular Experiences        40%             17%


Ability to Pay                          16%             73%


Personal Recognition Programs


(e.g. listings in directories)         41%             45%


 COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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