Feds Investigate Early-Decision Admissions

The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating whether some colleges' early-decision policies violate federal antitrust laws by exchanging information about accepted applicants, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Specifically, the agency recently sent letters to several institutions informing them of the inquiry and instructing them to preserve records and communications, including emails and other documents, related to the sharing of applicants' information among institutions. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, says the investigation pertains to "a potential agreement between colleges relating to their early decision practices."

Formal or informal agreements to share the identities of accepted early-decision applicants are meant to enforce the requirement that those applicants attend institutions that admit them, admissions officials say. Once an early-decision applicant is accepted and—by the nature of the program—committed to enroll, they are supposed to withdraw all other applications to colleges. Some institutions see fit to coordinate with one another regarding individual applicants to double-check students' activities.

Although the department's letter does not detail what agreement or policies are being investigated, the focus of the inquiry appears to be related to these information sharing practices.

In the early 1990s, Ivy League schools agreed not to coordinate with one another regarding individual applicants, among other stipulations. The agreement followed a Justice Department investigation into the practice, which the universities said promoted fairness but that the department said was an antitrust violation. Generally, college leaders have said the investigation discouraged them from sharing any information about applicants. However, there are definite indications that some sharing goes on, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Typically, college admissions officers view applicants who apply early decision without intending to enroll as abusing the system. Many colleges are more likely to admit applicants early than in the regular decision period, so the applicants gain an edge, but in theory the college gets an advantage, too, in that it can count on those admitted enrolling.

Several admissions officials said they believed the practice did not raise legal issues because students sign a waiver when they use the Common Application stating that they are aware that institutions that admit them early may share the information.


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