Outsiders have long been curious how admissions decisions are made. Most of the time this desire for transparency stems from a desire for fairness: Given how few acceptances elite institutions can offer, admitting any group of students almost always means excluding a much larger group that is just as qualified. So the unfortunate truth that investigators and the public may discover after peering into the black box of college admissions is that there are few, if any, procedures for deciding who gets in that would be perceived as fair.
This larger idea looms behind the Justice Department’s inquiry, but the department’s specific concern here is about the particularities of schools’ information-sharing arrangements. “Early decision” is an option offered by some schools that allows students to apply early and receive a decision sooner than usual, on the condition that they’ll accept an offer of admission. If a student is accepted early decision, they’re expected to withdraw their applications at any other schools.
Still, a very small number of students break these agreements and don’t withdraw their other applications. Which is where the information-sharing comes in: It’s helpful for colleges to know whether a student is already bound to attending another institution—and for the college that has accepted the student to know they are coming. Colleges can use this information to plan out who to admit, and it also reduces comparison-shopping on the part of students who might consider breaking an early-decision agreement for the promise of a sweeter financial-aid package at another school. But again, because it’s rare that students renege on early-decision admissions, the scope of the investigation is quite small.
Early decision has been controversial for a long time, but not for antitrust reasons. As Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Access Network, an advocacy group, puts it, many low-income and first-generation college students do not always have the “luxury of committing to a school and a package without the ability to compare that financial-aid package and find out where they and their family can afford.”
The colleges that received letters from the Justice Department were told to hold onto documents reflecting communication that might hint at—or outright state—those agreements, among other information. Of course, several admissions officers quickly noted that they did not have such agreements, and, in fact, most colleges don’t. But some officials anonymously acknowledged to The Chronicle of Higher Education that they did have such agreements with small groups of institutions and that they only shared names of students who were accepted.
This is not the Justice Department’s first foray into investigating potential antitrust issues with college admissions. In November, the department requested information regarding a revised admissions ethics code from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a trade group; investigators said they were interested in whether colleges agree to “restrain trade” by complying with NACAC’s updated ethics code. David Burge, the president of the organization, said in a statement that the association had no reason to believe that this inquiry is related to the Justice Department’s more recent one.