An Insider investigation has found that California's highest-ranking education official and leading public universities worked closely with a swaggering entrepreneur to give special accommodations to students at a private high school for elite families in China.
UC Irvine offered summer school programs specially arranged for students at the private academy in Qingdao, China, dispatched admissions staffers to its campus to talk to students and their parents, and reported on the students' progress through the admissions cycle.
At UC Riverside, the ties were even closer: The university pledged to work with the school's students to help them become competitive applicants and offered them special permission to submit applications even after the deadline had passed.
The superintendent of a Southern California school district that worked with the Chinese school publicly proclaimed that UC Riverside guaranteed admission to all of its graduates, according to the minutes of a public-school board meeting.
The infamous 2019 Varsity Blues college-admissions scandal revealed that wealthy parents will do whatever it takes to ensure their children are admitted to elite colleges.
Dozens of prominent parents - including the actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, as well as actress Felicity Huffman - took part in admissions counselor Rick Singer's criminal scheme to game the admissions system so that their kids could attend the University of Southern California, Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, and other elite institutions.
But Americans weren't the only targets - indeed, wealthy Chinese families were some of Singer's most lucrative clients involved in the scandal. As Varsity Blues grabbed headlines, though, Insider has learned of another scheme that, for years, quietly helped wealthy Chinese students seeking admission to top American colleges, particularly at the highly touted University of California system.
An Insider investigation has found that admissions staffers at at least two University of California campuses - UC Irvine and UC Riverside - as well as a retired senior staffer within the UC Office of the President, the system's headquarters, worked with a swaggering businessman, Steven Ma, who sought a leg up for the students at his elite private high school in Qingdao, China. The help offered to Ma's students, records show, included specially tailored summer programs, a written pledge to work with students so they'd be competitive applicants for admission, special permission to apply even after the university deadline had passed, and - at least according to one local school official in California who worked closely with the Chinese school - guaranteed admission to UC Riverside for all graduates.
One former California education official told Insider such an arrangement, if true, would be "appalling."
Ma's school was called Pegasus California School, and it officially opened in 2016 based on the premise that - by mimicking the curriculum of a public high school in California - he could increase the chances that his wealthy Chinese students would gain admission to top U.S. colleges and universities. The school even guaranteed parents, in writing, that every graduate would gain admission to one of the top 100 US universities.
Ma worked with some of the state's highest-ranking current and former education officials - Tom Torlakson, who at the time served as the state's superintendent of public instruction, and David Long, who previously served as state secretary of education before becoming the principal at Pegasus. With Torlakson and Long's help, Ma forged critical relationships with leading California universities and school districts to legitimize his operation - advertising to Chinese families that their children would be attending a school with a California curriculum. He also fostered a relationship with a struggling school district in Riverside County that issued official public school diplomas to his students.
Ma worked to establish what he called a "favorable relationship" with UC Irvine and UC Riverside, both of which embraced the Chinese high school. That included paying a retired UC staffer who continued to work for UC Irvine as a contractor. Daniel Aldrich, a retired staffer for the UC Office of the President (as well as the son of UC Irvine's founding chancellor) worked for both UC Irvine and for Pegasus, Insider has learned.
Records show that Aldrich contacted UC campuses on behalf of Pegasus, and he also supplied UC Irvine officials with a list of Pegasus students interested in attending the university, so those staffers could monitor the students' progress through the admissions cycle. One senior admissions staffer specifically told Aldrich that the students looked like competitive applicants for UCI. Aldrich communicated with UC personnel about Pegasus using his active University of California email address.
Long told Insider that Pegasus paid Aldrich as a consultant. "Especially with international students and parents, it's helpful to have someone that has had or is connected with, previously or currently [with the University of California]. We try to stay away from the current, but he's a consultant so it's not that big of a [deal]," Long added.
Aldrich confirmed to Insider that he was paid to consult for both UC Irvine and Pegasus, and that the high school also paid for him to travel to China. He said he never did anything improper in his work for Pegasus, which "produced quality students, and we look for quality students in the University of California."
UC Irvine told Insider in a statement that Aldrich contacted the university to see if Pegasus students' applications were missing transcripts or other necessary documents, and never discussed admissions.
"I'm not an expert in education"
Beyond Aldrich, Pegasus was close to UC Irvine in other ways. The university hosted an annual three- to four-week summer program specifically tailored to Pegasus students, and sent representatives to the school's China campus to meet with students and parents. And in an interview, a former Pegasus headmaster told Insider that Long said that UC Irvine pledged to accept at least some Pegasus graduates.
"Dave Long always spoke about his connections with UC Irvine and with the president there," Allen Riedel, the former headmaster, told Insider. "[He] told us...if they wanted to, they could go directly to UC Irvine no problem." When asked to clarify, Riedel said: "Dave Long reported that to me that they wouldn't take all of our students but they would take some of them."
Long denied that he ever made that statement. "I don't even know the president," he said. "And about a statement to say if you just come from Pegasus you can get in automatically, that's not correct. You have to reach the minimums to even be considered."
Yet, in an August 2018 email obtained by Insider, Riedel explicitly invoked "Dr. Long's connections" as he pressured the school's guidance counselor to meet admissions goals: "These kids need to go to their top universities," he said. "We need to...get some of these kids at least accepted in Ivy League schools. Accepted, not necessarily that they go there. We imagine our next 16-28 will go to UCI (or comparable) with Dr. Long's connections and my visit to some universities."
Ma acknowledged that Pegasus worked to establish what he called "a favorable relationship" with both UC Irvine and UC Riverside. But he insisted that the goal was to help "bring educational insight to Pegasus California School students" rather than secure them a leg up in admissions, which he said would be "impossible" anyway. Asked why Long might say that his connections could help Pegasus students applying to UC Irvine, Ma replied: "I don't know. I'm not an expert in education."
In a statement UCI said it never guaranteed admission to anyone.
"According to the news this Pegasus school reports, the student from this school can get privileges when they apply to UCR"
At UC Riverside, the favorable relationship that Ma described seemed especially obvious. During a May 2019 school board meeting for the Val Verde Unified School District, a Southern California school district that developed a close relationship with Pegasus, the district's superintendent, Michael McCormick, went so far as to publicly proclaim that UC Riverside guaranteed admission to all Pegasus graduates, according to the minutes of a public-school board meeting.
"Essentially what this means," he explained, according to public meeting minutes, "is that UCR and Pegasus will have an agreement to exchange professors and students. What UCR has agreed is that every student that graduates from Pegasus will have admission to UCR."
"The goal of public education in the state of California is to support California children, and higher education does allow [students] from other countries, but we don't guarantee them admission," said Delaine Eastin, who served as California's state superintendent of public instruction in the 1990s and early 2000s. "I find it appalling if it is true that UC Riverside has guaranteed admission for these graduates."
In a statement, a spokesperson for UC Riverside said McCormick was mistaken. "It appears that an individual made some incorrect statements at a Val Verde school board meeting, about which statements the University had no knowledge until they were later brought to the university's attention."
According to records obtained by Insider, UC Riverside admissions staffers also offered Pegasus students the opportunity to submit late admissions applications to the university, giving them an advantage over students who abided by the UC-wide November 30 deadline.
In December 2018, Long sent the school a list of 18 late Pegasus applicants who wanted to apply to UC Riverside. Emails show that the university's interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services personally authorized a late application through December 15 - giving Pegasus students an extra 15 days to apply.
The spokesperson for UC Riverside said that of the 18 applicants sent to the school, 13 had actually already applied on time, and that none of the remaining five ended up submitting late application appeals. Both Ma and Long said that it was not uncommon for students to apply to universities after the admissions deadline.
At least one prospective Pegasus student, however, was confused by the high school's arrangement with UC Riverside. A Chinese student living outside of Qingdao contacted the university and expressed interest in transferring to Pegasus. she had read online about an official cooperation between the college and high school, and was under the impression that being at Pegasus would bolster her chances of being accepted to UC Riverside. She wanted to know if what she read was true.
"According to the news this Pegasus school reports, the student from this school can get privileges when they apply to UCR," she said. "If it is true, I am considering to transfer into this Pegasus school to get the priority offer from UCR."
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