File-In this March 27, 2019, file photo, Robert Zangrillo departs federal court in Boston after a hearing in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. Records released in federal court reveal that the University of Southern California sometimes takes family donations into account when deciding who gets admitted.
Spreadsheets and emails shared among admissions and athletics officials appear to track the fundraising history of certain applicants, with notes including “given 2 million already” and “potential donor.” The records were filed in Boston’s federal court Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, by a parent charged in a sweeping admissions bribery scheme. Lawyers for Zangrillo aim to argue that his alleged bribe to USC was no different than donations made by other parents. USC officials say Zangrillo is only trying to divert attention from the fraud charges he faces. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via AP, File)

Records: USC gave extra attention to students tied to donors

September 04, 2019 - 5:55 pm

BOSTON (AP) — A trove of records released in federal court shows the University of Southern California routinely has taken family donations into account when deciding who gets accepted, with notes alongside some applicants' names including "1 mil pledge," ''given 2 million already," and "potential donor."

The notes tracking the fundraising history associated with applicants were included in spreadsheets shared among top admissions and athletics officials. In some cases, students with ties to donors were labeled as "VIP" and were accepted despite having grades and test scores below the school's average.

It has long been known that some schools consider fundraising when choosing applicants, but it's unclear how widespread the practice is, and only rarely has such explicit detail about the process been made available to the public.

The records were filed in Boston's federal court Tuesday by a parent charged in a sweeping admissions bribery scheme. Lawyers for Robert Zangrillo are requesting a subpoena for wider access to USC records detailing the role of wealth in admissions, saying it will prove that Zangrillo's alleged bribe to USC was "indistinguishable from the vast numbers of other donations by parents of students."

"The documents being sought will help demonstrate how the practice of making donations was welcomed and tracked at USC and how such donations had a significant effect on improving a prospective student's chances for admission," his lawyers wrote in the court document.

Zangrillo is accused of paying $250,000 to get his daughter into college as a fake athlete.

A statement from USC says Zangrillo's filing is "part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted by a federal grand jury." The school acknowledged that it allows "many departments" to flag applicants for special consideration, but that athletics officials cannot compel the admissions office to accept or deny students.

In an Aug. 22 court filing opposing the subpoena, USC said it does not consistently track information on students flagged as special interest, but the Tuesday filing from Zangrillo attempts to prove otherwise.

Included in the filing are more than a dozen email chains and spreadsheets with information about applicants who were flagged for extra attention, often by sports officials. One spreadsheet purports to be a cumulative list of students flagged as special interest from 2012 through 2015, detailing their grades, test scores and family donations, along with the person who added them to the list and why.

Dozens of the students were listed as accepted, while some were denied. In one case, a student appears to have been accepted with a 3.0 grade point average and an SAT score of 1410, both below the school's average around that time. The student was recommended by a sports official, and a notes field said "$3 mil to Men's Golf."

Also included in the filing were several email chains among admissions, fundraising and athletics officials discussing applicants from wealthy families. In one email from March 2018, a sports official lobbied on behalf of a prospective student, saying her test scores were "well below the standard" but that her family had "helped build the foundation of many USC projects and initiatives."

Another email chain from 2014 reveals a dispute between the athletics department and USC's business school over which one would receive funding from an applicant's family. In an exchange between sports officials, one said "If this is not working out the way you planned, I can have Admissions pull the approval." The other sports officials replied: "Really sucks don't pull we will guilt them."

In its previous court filing, USC argued that most students who get flagged for extra attention are not admitted, and that those who do get in have applications "consistent with other admitted students in terms of grades, academic rigor, test scores, extracurricular activities and several other factors."

Zangrillo's lawyers counter that, according to records they have obtained, the admission rate for students flagged by the athletics department was far higher, reaching as high as 91% in 2016. A judge has ordered a hearing later this month before deciding whether the subpoena should be allowed to go forward.

USC's previous filing also played down the influence of wealth in admissions: "The Office of Admission has no role with respect to donations," the school said. "It does not track donations; it does not know how much the family of an applicant has donated; and it does not focus on donations in deciding whether to admit an applicant."

Elite universities closely guard the inner workings of their admissions offices and the role wealth can play, but details occasionally surface. Last year, a lawsuit against Harvard University revealed that admissions and athletics officials paid extra attention to the children of some donors. Harvard officials said they only accept qualified students, but that donations are important to help provide scholarships and position the school well for the future.

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Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley

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