University of California schools, particularly UC Berkeley, inappropriately admitted dozens of students who were underqualified but had connections to university staff or large donors, a new state audit found.
The audit looked through six years of enrollment records at four campuses — UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara — and found at least 64 such students, though it notes there were likely more.
“The university has allowed for improper influence in admissions decisions, and it has not treated applicants fairly or consistently,” California State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a letter to state officials. “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 called on UC President Michael Drake to do more to prevent such admissions, such as prohibiting communications between a school’s fundraising and admissions departments about prospective students.
State lawmakers ordered the audit in the wake of last year’s college bribery scandal — dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” — which ensnared parents and university officials around the country, including USC and UCLA, leading to dozens of guilty pleas.
The new report notes the majority of students improperly admitted were white and came from families with an income of at least $150,000.
The bulk of the inappropriate admissions happened at UC Berkeley, where auditors note 13 student athletes and 42 other students received “uncompetitive” scores from the school’s application readers but had connections to donors, potential donors or university staff.
“Each of these 42 applicants received reader ratings that made it unlikely they would receive an offer of admission,” the audit states. “These admissions occurred even though UC Berkeley’s own policies identified that a fundamental principle of its admissions process was that it would not give preference to applicants because they were related to donors, alumni, or employees of either the campus or the university.”
The report identified one “particularly problematic” case in which UC Berkeley “appears to have admitted this student because of an inappropriate letter of support from a university Regent.”
While members of the board of regents are allowed to write letters of recommendation for applicants during the regular admissions process, university policy bars regents from inappropriately influencing admissions outcomes beyond that.
The audit found a UC regent sent a letter to UC Berkeley’s chancellor advocating for a waitlisted student. The chancellor’s office forwarded the letter to the school’s development department, which sent the letter to the admissions office, and the student was later admitted.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ called the report’s descriptions “highly disturbing” but pointed to changes in recent years to the university’s undergrad admissions policies.
“At Berkeley, we now document more thoroughly how certain admissions decisions are made, and we have added more process oversight. For example, under our new processes, no individual person (including the admissions director) can determine the final outcome of a student application,” Christ wrote in a message to the campus community.
The chancellor said the report’s “allegations, if true, are unacceptable,” and will be investigated.
Pay to Play
Other inappropriate admissions happened through athletic teams at the four schools. Auditors say they identified at least 22 cases — including the 13 at UC Berkeley — in which coaches designated applicants as student athletes even though the student lacked athletic qualifications or did not compete with the team.
In some cases, student athletes were admitted after a parent or other connection promised a donation to the school’s athletic department.
The audit points to a case at UC Berkeley where a coach “facilitated the admission of an applicant as a prospective student athlete, even though the applicant had played only a single year of the sport in high school and at a low level of competition.”
After the applicant was admitted as a student athlete, their family donated thousands of dollars to the team. The student never competed with the team and was removed after the season ended.
The report details similar cases at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, though it notes the limited review may have left other cases undiscovered.
In a letter to state auditor Howle, UC President Michael Drake said the university would take “prompt action to address issues” outlined in the report.
Drake, who was appointed in July, said many of the problems were discovered in an internal audit the university conducted in 2019.
“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,” he wrote.
But Howle’s office called on Drake to exercise tighter control and oversight of campus admissions to prevent future admissions of unqualified, well-connected students.
In a response to Drake’s letter, the auditor’s office points out the university allowed campuses to develop their own “corrective policies” following the internal audit and has not followed up on implementation.
For example, state auditors say UCLA has not implemented a policy the president's office recommended to prohibit campus development and admissions offices from communicating about potential students.
“Our review found that the Office of the President has not adequately safeguarded the admissions process, and we recommend that it conduct regular audits of its campuses,” a note from the auditor’s office reads.