USC post-Varsity Blues: By golly, maybe we should reform our admissions practices

Ya think? After watching multiple coaches get indicted in the Operation Varsity Blues college-admissions corruption scandal, the University of Southern California has decided to crack down on athlete admissions exceptions … somewhat. USC announced yesterday that all such admissions would have to clear a “three-tiered review” and be subject to audits twice a year:

The University of Southern California announced a revamped admissions process for prospective student-athletes in the wake of the national college admissions scam.

The new procedures include a three-tiered review from the head coach, the senior sports administrator overseeing the team and the USC Office of Athletics Compliance before being sent to the admissions staff, USC announced Friday. The head coach will then certify in writing that the student is in fact being recruited for his or her athletic abilities. Athletic rosters will also be audited at the beginning and end of each academic year and cross checked with admissions lists.

“We are determined to take all necessary steps to safeguard the integrity of our admissions process and to ensure we conduct ourselves in a manner that is consistent with our values,” the university said in a statement.

Those seem like reasonable steps, and in a vacuum might have kept Olivia Jade and others at CSU Northridge. The system in place before the FBI’s operation relied almost solely on the coaches, although the administration had authority to double check at any time. This system would force a series of sign-offs that raises the stakes and the disincentives to game the admissions process — theoretically, anyway.

However, one has to wonder whether this new process in practice wouldn’t raise the stakes in other ways, as in increasing the prices rather than stopping fraud altogether. Parents with this kind of money and this level of obsession with status through their kids don’t start worrying about college acceptances at the senior-prom stage. They can get their kids on low-profile prep teams like crew and golf long enough to make them look legit regardless of how much talent they’ve got, and then just pay the coach to keep them on the college team. That would solve the audit and oversight issues, especially the latter; how much time would anyone but the coach have to evaluate team talent?

Nevertheless, at least it’s a start, and it might clear some of the pikers from the game, anyway. California legislators must think so too, because they are preparing to make a similar system required for all public colleges and universities in the state. The schools might lose Cal-Grant standing if they do not comply, which would be a major financial penalty:

In the wake of the $25 million college admissions cheating scandal in which 50 people were criminally charged, California lawmakers are attempting to crack down on the so-called side door that allowed wealthy parents to engineer their children’s acceptance to elite universities.

The six-bill legislative package, put forth in the State Assembly on March 28, takes aim at certain college admissions practices like the one exploited in the scheme, in which coaches can select a number of students who might not get in otherwise as athletic recruits, essentially guaranteeing their acceptance. …

McCarty’s legislation, which would only apply to the state’s public universities, would require these types of admissions to have the approval of a minimum of three administrative staff members — with the hope that one of those staffers would uncover any attempt to game the system.

“When a soccer coach asks the admissions team to let in somebody who allegedly has soccer talent but they’re not getting an athletic scholarship but they’re just getting into the university, then we should have double or triple checking to make sure that person is legitimately a soccer player,” McCarty told NBC News.

This presents more problems than the system USC has implemented for itself, and perhaps for much less return. NBC notes that the “admission by exception” process is quite necessary for those educated non-traditionally, such as in home-schooling situations. Some legit athletic recruits might also get locked out, especially since this would be a statutory requirement with hefty financial penalties for violations. It’s one thing for private-school USC to adopt new safeguards, which they can adapt on the fly when necessary, hopefully with a whole lot of transparency. Public schools expected to adhere to statutory requirements or else will opt for the safe route each time.

And let’s not forget that these parents wanted to get their darlings into elite institutions. Families from China paid Rick Singer millions of dollars to get their scions into Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, the latter of which wouldn’t be subject to California’s proposed law anyway. Two of the eleven schools caught up in OVB are UCLA and UC Berkeley, and the University of Texas is another public school implicated in the scandal, so it’s not as though the public schools are immune. However, for the most part parents like Lori Loughlin spent the big bucks aiming for prestigious private schools. The proposed laws might end up doing far more harm than good, but at this stage that may not matter — until those disadvantaged by the new laws make enough of a public stink that it begins to overshadow Lori Loughlin and the other wealthy defendants in Operation Varsity Blues.

And that might be a long, long time coming.