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The Legal Employment Impact of the Admissions Scandal

Until last week, the prevailing mantra concerning college campus legal employment opportunities was static—ho-hum—at best. Since the advent of the Trump administration and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education, slashing programs and deregulation were the orders of the day.

That is about to change in part, thanks to the college admissions scandal currently making its way through the courts. And the change is likely to come from Congress, state legislatures and education departments around the country. Even DeVos’ Department of Education, forced by public and media outrage, is reluctantly reviewing its regulations to determine if new rules are required.

In response to the Hollywood elite’s clumsy attempts at gaming the college admissions process to get their children into top schools at the expense of more deserving applicants, bills are already being introduced or being contemplated in Congress and state legislatures. These are designed to rein in the alleged illegal practices exposed by the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office and, in many cases, to go further and impose new regulations on the whole admissions community, including college admissions offices, university athletic departments, college institutional advancement (translation: fundraising) offices, and the private college counseling and coaching profession.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, announced that he will introduce legislation that ends tax breaks for contributions to colleges and universities before or during enrollment of the donor’s child. The Internal Revenue Service http://irs.gov allows people to claim deductions to nonprofit colleges and universities.

 “The federal government shouldn’t be perpetuating this system by awarding tax breaks to these contributions, contributions that return to the donor a benefit of inestimable value,” Wyden said in a statement. “This is yet another example of how the tax code helps the wealthiest Americans get even further ahead. Middle-class families don’t have access to this back door for their children. If the wealthy want to grease the skids, they shouldn’t be able to do so at the expense of American taxpayers.”

It is also expected that a 2017 bipartisan bill will be reintroduced which would subject schools with the smallest population of low-income students to fines.

Expect additional bills to be introduced following hearings by the relevant House and Senate oversight committees.

State legislative activity to regulate college admissions is also likely. At this writing, California has taken the lead, with several proposals already introduced in the Assembly. These bills would:

Regulate Special Admissions. Requires any special admission, also known as “admission by exception,” to have approval from a minimum of three top-level college administrative staff members prior to a student’s acceptance.

Ban Preferential Admissions for Donors & Alumni. Prohibits any California college or university from granting preferential admissions to applicants related to the institution’s donors or alumni, or risk exclusion from the Cal Grant program.

Regulate College Admissions Consultants. Directs private college admissions firms and consultants to register with the Secretary of State if they generate more than $5,000 in annual income. A stakeholder group will determine regulations for the industry within a year of registry’s enactment.

Prohibit Fraudulent Tax Write-Offs. Provides that any taxpayer named in the complaints stemming from the college admissions scandal and found to be guilty may not deduct related charitable donations from state income taxes. If a deduction related to the fraud conviction has already been claimed, it must be refunded to the state along with paying a fine.

Request Audit Risks of Fraud in Admissions. Calls upon the State Auditor to review risks of fraud in the University of California’s admissions processes, with a close look at the admissions process for student athletes and other special admissions. The audit will also examine admissions processes and procedures at California’s public universities. 

Study Phasing Out Use of the SAT & ACT. Requests the California State University and University of California systems to conduct a study of the usefulness, effectiveness and need for the SAT and ACT to determine student admissions.

Other states are considering introducing similar or related legislation.

Should college admission bills become law—and you can take it to the bank that some of them will—they will generate a whole set of new employment opportunities for attorneys. These initiatives are likely to produce the largest number of campus and outside counsel legal job opportunities since enactment of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-110publ315/html/PLAW-110publ315.htm which imposed more than 300 new regulations on post-secondary institutions.