Take, for example, the idea of a national clearinghouse or a matching system, similar to the one for medical-residency programs. With a national clearinghouse, students could upload their academic records and accomplishments during their high-school career and then in their senior year simply press a button to apply to colleges. The database would be open to admissions officers at all colleges, so they could see where else students are applying, bringing a level of openness to the process. Under a matching system, students and colleges would each submit rank-order lists of each other and be paired as closely as possible.
Those who follow admissions closely tend to think that such a system would ease the pressures on students, parents, and schools. But, alas, antitrust law prohibits it—it would produce a level of cooperation that the federal government would likely find unacceptable. (The medical-residency match program is legal because Congress granted it an antitrust exemption about 15 years ago.)
Other promising college-admissions fixes that have been proposed run up against some of the same problems. One feature of the shared application designed by an advocacy group called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success is a virtual “locker,” which is already being tested by more than 130 prestigious schools. It allows students as early as ninth grade to upload their written work, videos, photos, and other materials that show off their potential beyond a transcript. At first, only students can access the locker, but over time they can open it to their parents, counselors, and to colleges through the admissions process. While the virtual locker doesn’t have the transparency of a clearinghouse, it too might raise antitrust concerns one day, depending on how colleges want to share access with each other.
Another idea that has been floated is to have admissions to selective colleges determined by a lottery. The names of qualified students would be picked at random until a class is filled. “A strict lottery system for academically qualified applicants would be the most equitable, least costly, and most publicly explainable method of dealing with the ever-growing demand for scarce seats at our most selective institutions,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. A lottery system would also, in all likelihood, not pass muster with the Department of Justice, which enforces antitrust law, because depending on how it was administered, it likely would require colleges to share information about applicants with each other.
Another option: Put a limit on the number of colleges to which students can apply. The proportion of college freshmen who applied to seven or more colleges reached 35 percent in 2016, up from 18 percent a decade ago, and from just 9 percent in 1990. Some eight in 10 freshmen in 2016 applied to at least three colleges. “If you limited it to, say, five, everyone would get fewer applicants,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the former president of Vassar College who now heads the nonprofit research group Ithaka S+R. This is a solution that might not be banned by antitrust provisions, as it might be able to be implemented through, say, the Common Application, rather than through the direct cooperation of colleges.