DOJ investigates Swarthmore’s early decision admissions process

According to a statement by Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90, Swarthmore received a letter from the Department of Justice requesting that it preserve documents related to Early Decision practices. A group of selective colleges and universities including Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Tufts that accept applications through early decision also received the letter. The DOJ is investigating whether the data colleges share with each other during the early decision admissions process, such as the names of students admitted, violate US antitrust laws, according to the New York Times.
Swarthmore has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice requesting the preservation of documents about the early admission application process,” Bock wrote in an e-mail to The Phoenix. “We are taking the request very seriously and are fully cooperating with the government,” he added, but couldn’t comment further.
Bock did not comment on why the DOJ wants to investigate Early Decisions data sharing. The antitrust division of the DOJ enforces laws which promote competitive business practices. In 1991, the department investigated the Ivy League universities for collaborating with regard to financial aid offers made to students who were accepted by multiple schools, a practice which was designed to prevent schools from using financial aid funds to compete over the best students. DOJ officials argued that this practice denied students the right to compare prices among schools.
The DOJ’s concern about financial aid competition may apply to the current investigation. Institutions like Swarthmore have less of an incentive to offer robust financial aid packages to early decision applicants since the students have already decided to attend the institution. By ensuring that students apply to only one school, they eliminate competition between schools over prospective students.
The Dean of Amherst College said in 2016 that she shares a list of students accepted through the early decision process with a group of 30 other colleges that offer early decision admission. The list sharing is designed to prevent students from applying early decision to multiple colleges at the same time, violating the contract. US News reported that sharing this data is a generally accepted practice.
Colleges like Swarthmore that offer early decision as an option in the application process require that students apply only to one school and commit to the school should they be accepted. The early decision agreement students sign, however, is not legally binding, according to US News. Admissions departments may allow students out of these agreements for certain reasons such as inadequate financial aid package or sickness of a family member. However, if students apply to multiple schools early decision, they may jeopardize their acceptances to both places.
The schools received letters,  not subpoenas, so while there may be lawyers involved, the DOJ does not look like it will be taking the investigation to court any time soon, if at all. As a result of the 1991 investigation of Ivy League universities, the schools agreed to stop collaborating about financial aid offers. The current investigation could yield a similar result, with colleges agreeing not to share lists of the students they accept early decision. No matter the result, this investigation will only impact future applicants to the school, not current students.

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