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    Fair College Admissions for All

    By Assemblymember Phil Ting–

    Like you, I was shocked, then angry, to hear about Operation Varsity Blues, the national college admissions scandal. But there has always been a legal way for privileged families to get their children into elite universities under a different set of rules outside of the normal process.

    This is frustrating because we raise our kids to believe that if they work hard, opportunities will be available to them. But that’s not entirely true. There’s a back door for people with means, giving them advantages over more deserving students. This preferential treatment for wealthy families must stop.

    As a result of this federal investigation, my Assembly colleagues and I introduced a package of proposals aimed at bringing more fairness and equity to the college admissions process. My bill, AB 697, would ban preferential admissions treatment for students related to a college’s donors or alumni, if that institution participates in the Cal Grant program. The goal is to push colleges with such admissions policies to change them. The state invests $2.3 billion a year in its financial aid program that enables hundreds of thousands of students to attend college. Taxpayer funds should not flow toward California schools that have a different admissions process for well-connected families.

    A 2018 survey published in Inside Higher Ed found that 42% of admissions leaders at private institutions say legacy status is a factor in the application review process, yet only 32% believe it is an appropriate consideration. This bias is evident at one of the schools at the center of the admissions scandal, University of Southern California (USC). According to CalMatters, the school’s own blog says that legacy students made up nearly 20% of its freshman class in 2017–18. The same year, USC received more than $21 million in Cal Grants, more than any other college.

    On top of all that, most families don’t have the benefit of expensive test preparation services, private tutoring or college admissions consultants. Taken together, these considerations discourage families from aiming high and seeking admission to a prestigious college because they feel the odds are stacked against them. And they’re right.

    In addition to calling upon schools to rescind admissions policies that grant preferential treatment to students related to donors or alumni, the other reform proposals include prohibiting any “special admission by exception” unless three administrators approve it. This category is often used to recruit exceptional athletes or gifted students. The scandal brought to light cases in which students would “walk-on” to a team, without knowing how to play the sport. Having more than one sign-off for special admissions will ensure they only apply to those students truly bringing their unique talents to the school.

    Another proposal seeks to increase checks and balances by requiring college admissions consultants to register with the state. More robust oversight of the industry could have prevented William “Rick” Singer’s California-based company from gaming the admissions process. Other measures would audit the risk of admissions fraud at California colleges and urge them to phase out use of standardized tests, as wealthier students with the means to be better prepared score, on average, 400 points higher than low-income students on the SAT.

    In a hearing last month, I called on the schools implicated in the scandal to rescind degrees or to expel students who fraudulently gained admissions. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed. While our legislative proposals won’t completely stop unfair practices in the college admissions process, we must do our part to increase equity and curb abuses.

    Phil Ting represents the 19th Assembly District, which includes the Westside of San Francisco along with the communities of Broadmoor, Colma and Daly City.