By Andrew Smalley
High school students submitted more than 10 million applications to colleges and universities in 2017, an increase of more than 10% compared to just three years earlier.
As the number of applications continues to grow and admissions at elite schools decline, both institutions and states are increasingly focusing on admission policies and decisions.
The issue of college admissions was further amplified when federal prosecutors indicted more than 30 college parents as part of the bribery scandal that became known as Operation Varsity Blues. The scandal surrounded wealthy parents who paid an admission consultant to help their students gain admission to elite schools by rigging standardized tests or bribing coaches to ensure admission as a student-athlete.
After news of this scandal broke in March, California lawmakers scrambled to introduce legislation to address admissions practices at many of the schools that were part of the scandal. By the end of the session, legislators had enacted three major bills related to admissions:
- AB 697 requires governing bodies of each institution to provide annual reports to the Legislature on any preferential treatment in admission. This includes applicants who are admitted on the basis of their relationships to donors or alumni of the institution. Schools that use preferential treatment in admissions will have to provide detailed enrollment information to the Legislature.
- AB 136 prohibits taxpayers who were charged and found guilty as part of the federal investigation from benefiting from contributions and deductions made to charities involved in the admission scandal. Several parents may have claimed payments to charities involved in the scandal as deductions on their taxes. This bill rules those deductions as unlawful.
- AB 1383 would prohibit admission by exception—such as admission for a student with a special talent in athletics or the arts—unless the admission has been approved by at least three senior campus administrators.
While these bills represent substantial changes to admissions policies in the state, more far-reaching proposals failed to pass or were modified by legislators. For example, the original version of AB 697 would have created an outright ban for all preferential treatment related to donors or alumni. An additional bill to more closely regulate college admissions consultants, such as the one involved in the scandal, stalled in the state Senate.
In 2019, 13 states introduced legislation relating to admissions and enrollment and 17 bills were enacted into law. Not all this legislation is directly related to the admissions scandal. For example, Colorado passed SB 170, which prohibits state institutions of higher education from inquiring into an applicant's criminal or disciplinary history on an application for admission. The bill does provide exceptions for prior convictions related to some crimes, including stalking, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Other states reviewed and modified their procedures for automatic admission. Illinois passed the Public University Uniform Admission Act to admit first-time applicants who graduate from state high schools with specified grade point averages. Texas passed HB 539 to amend its Ten Percent Plan to ensure admission for high school valedictorians, regardless of the size of their graduating class.
As more schools move toward test-optional admissions and the fallout from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal persists, states will likely continue to address college admissions policies and rules in order to ensure residents have access to postsecondary education institutions.
Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.