(Photo courtesy of USC)

California’s private, nonprofit colleges and universities are succeeding so far in pushing back against the most draconian and controversial state legislation proposed in response to the recent college admissions corruption scandal.

That bill, AB 697, originally would have stripped Cal Grants financial aid from all students attending any college that gave so-called legacy admission preference to children of alumni or donors. It met furious opposition from private colleges, which said the proposal would punish the low-income students who depend on Cal Grant aid to cover a large share of tuition and also would interfere with schools’ traditions of maintaining family ties in relatively small numbers of cases.

Now, with that criticism and disapproval from other legislative leaders, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco,) has overhauled the bill and stripped out the threat of canceling Cal Grants if legacy admissions are granted. Instead, the revised version would withhold Cal Grants only if the schools don’t provide data on the number of legacy admissions and enrollments that do not meet the college’s basic academic standards of entrance.

That less punitive version of the bill was approved late last month by the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. However, further softening of the bill, or its complete death, may be at hand at the Appropriations Committee and leadership conferences in coming days.

The state’s 10-campus University of California and 23-campus California State University systems say they don’t use such preferential legacy admissions. But many private schools do and say it is an important and legitimate tradition if used properly. Cal Grants use state money to help pay as much as $9,084 a year in tuition for low and middle-income students at private colleges, an important source of revenue for the schools.

The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU) — which includes 84 schools such as the University of California and Stanford University — is glad the original bill was changed. But the group still opposes any link between Cal Grants and legacy admissions policies, according to association spokesman Aram Nadjarian.

“Any tie to Cal Grants is a non-starter,” he said. The colleges contend such a penalty would hurt low-income students while setting what he described as “a dangerous precedent” of state regulation. He said that the association was willing to discuss some type of new disclosure policies regarding admissions and legacies but that it was premature to offer any details.

The association does not know now what percentage of students are admitted as legacies at member campuses and is starting a study of that issue, Nadjarian said. It is likely to be a range, with at least one, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena banning them altogether, he added.

The bill was changed to gain support of Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, who is chairman of the higher education committee, according to a Ting spokesman. At the recent committee meeting at which the revisions were unveiled, Ting said his main goal was to make legacy information public and that he was willing to look at alternatives to withholding Cal Grants as the method. “I am happy to explore other ways to get this information,” he said.

Medina had said he was not willing to support the initial version but would at least temporarily approve the revised one as long as refinements continued during the next legislative steps. At the committee meeting, Medina went out of his way to praise private colleges and said: “We want to make sure that Cal Grants are available across the board to all students, whether they attend publics or privates.”

Ting’s bill was part of package of proposals introduced last month by Assembly Democrats who said they were outraged by disclosures about bribery and test-cheating corruption. Some allegations were centered at California campuses, including UCLA and the private USC. Federal criminal charges were filed against coaches, parents, administrators and the scheme’s mastermind William Singer of Newport Beach, a consultant who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other counts. Some others, including Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman, have pleaded guilty as well to various charges involving efforts to enroll their children at elite schools or getting fake athletes on to college teams.

The other bills proposed last month are less controversial and have found some support among public and private colleges. Those include proposed tighter oversight of athletics admissions at public universities, the regulation of private admissions counselors and a plan to study the possible phase-out of standardized tests, such as the SAT, as an application requirement at public campuses.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Larry Gordon