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UC Berkeley Checking Up on MBA Students

Its business school is one of a growing number of educational institutions to begin verifying whether their applicants are telling the truth.

March 15, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

All too aware of a spate of scandals in the corporate world, officials at UC Berkeley's graduate business school are running background checks this year on all students earmarked for admission, and have recently rejected a handful for lying.

Of 100 students who have qualified thus far for admission to the fall class at the Haas School of Business, five were rejected in February after they were discovered to have made false claims about their work histories, said Jett Pihakis, director of domestic admissions for the school's full-time MBA program.

The most egregious case involved a student who had fabricated a record of promotions at his job, and included a letter of recommendation purportedly written by a supervisor but actually written by an assistant. All five had strong enough backgrounds that they would have been admitted if they had told the truth, Pihakis said.

"It's such a shame," he said. "But ethics is very important in any field, and in business right now you want to make sure that the people you're admitting are who and what they say they are."

Haas, a high-ranking business school, is one of a growing number of educational institutions to begin verifying whether their applicants are telling the truth.

Business school officials say they have reason to be particularly concerned about ethics, given the collapse of Enron and other high-profile corporate scandals of the last year.

Haas administrators say they followed the example of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, which recently began requiring applicants to pay for an outside firm to audit the truthfulness of their applications. Many other business schools, including UCLA's, run background checks on a random sample of admitted students, officials said.

But business schools are not alone in such concerns.

This year, the University of California began to spot-check undergraduate applications, looking for students lying or stretching the truth in their claims of honors, extracurricular activities, employment, or even adversity, officials said.

The decision was prompted in part by the growing competition for spots at UC's most elite campuses, but also by a shift in its admissions policy last year that allows all freshman applicants to be evaluated on personal, as well as academic achievements.

UC spokeswoman Lavonne Luquis said Friday that the first year of the policy is not yet complete, but that more than 90% of the students randomly chosen for spot checks have satisfactorily verified their information.

A small number of other cases are still pending, she said, and one student "was found to have misstated some information" and will not be admitted. Luquis would not elaborate, but said that was the only problem identified so far.

Fewer than 10% of the 76,931 applications the UC system received this year for its eight undergraduate campuses were chosen to be checked, she said.

Each student selected was asked to verify one area of his or her application, including academics, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, employment or even the claims made in his or her personal statement. "Given the competitiveness of the admissions process, we recognize that some students may fear that others may embellish their academic records, and that this would put honest students at a disadvantage," Luquis said. "But that has not been our experience."

With college enrollments booming across the nation, the competition for admission -- especially at top schools -- is tougher than ever and more students than before may be tempted to embroider their records, college and higher education officials say.

Another reason for the new concern is that many schools, like UC, have moved away from basing admissions decisions on numeric formulas and now look at more subjective or "qualitative" measures, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The UC system wants to satisfy itself and others that "it is not being gamed," he said.

"Increasingly, as institutions move away from numbers based on class ranks, grades and test scores, they are trying to do more comprehensive assessments of students and finding a need then to try to verify students' claims," Nassirian said. "It's very much a trend."

At the Haas School, admissions director Pihakis said about 10% of applications have been checked in previous years, but that this year's decision to check all admitted MBA students was prompted in part by corporate scandals. In addition, he said, school officials were recently concerned to learn of a student now enrolled who may have misrepresented himself in an application. Disciplinary action is pending, Pihakis said.

At Wharton, officials said they decided last year to check the integrity of their students and their application process and did a random check of admitted students, with all coming up clean. This year, they are requiring all students to pay the $35 fee to cover the cost of screening by a private firm.

"Everything is so competitive these days, with students thinking their lives are determined by which institution they go to," said Rosemaria Martinelli, Wharton's director of MBA admissions and financial aid. "We're trying to remind them that integrity is the most important thing."


Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.

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