Metro

Why is the government investigating early decision at elite colleges?

Williams College is among at least seven colleges and universities that have received letters from the Justice Department about the federal investigation.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/file
Williams College is among at least seven colleges and universities that have received letters from the Justice Department about the federal investigation.

A Justice Department antitrust investigation into early-decision admissions practices has ensnared several elite New England colleges and left many higher education specialists puzzled about what message the Trump administration is trying to send.

Highly competitive schools, including Amherst College, Middlebury College, Wellesley College, Williams College, and Tufts University, have received letters from the Department of Justice asking them to maintain documents related to their early-decision programs and any sharing of the names and information of accepted students they might have done with other colleges.

The probe comes on the heels of another Justice Department investigation of race-based admissions practices at Harvard University.

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The inquiry also takes aim at what has become an increasingly popular way for students to apply to college. More students, seeking an edge in the college admissions process, are applying early in an attempt to avoid the traditional spring application period that has become progressively fierce. And more colleges are filling a larger share of their seats through early decisions.

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“Williams is complying fully with the DOJ’s discovery process, and we’re eager to learn more about their thinking on the issue,” said Greg Shook, a spokesman for the school.

Amherst, Middlebury, and Tufts said they are cooperating with the Justice Department but declined to comment further. The Justice Department also declined to comment.

The probe was first reported by the trade publication Inside Higher Ed.

Under the early-decision process, students apply to a college in November and find out if they’ve been accepted in December. Students aren’t supposed to apply to more than one college for early decision, though some do. Once students are accepted under early decision, they are expected to withdraw their applications at other schools.

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Students are permitted to pull out of an early-decision commitment if the financial aid a college offers isn’t sufficient.

Allison Matlack, a college admissions consultant in Needham, said she understands why colleges might share the names of admitted students with similar colleges.

In many cases, she said, they might want to ensure that families are abiding by the early-decision process and aren’t gaming the system.

Usually, if a college finds a student has applied elsewhere after getting an early-decision admission, the second school would withdraw the student’s name, she said.

Such cases seem rare.

Middlebury College.
Corey Hendrickson for the Boston Globe/file
Middlebury College.
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For colleges, sharing students’ names can also be a way to ensure that students who have indicated they will be coming to the school actually show up, Matlack said.

College budgets and their rankings in surveys such as U.S. News & World Report depend on how many of their admitted students show up for the first day of class.

“That’s the only way they have leverage,” Matlack said of the colleges. “It’s only preventing families from playing an unethical game.”

Not all colleges share names of students, and in an age when the government and the public are increasingly wary of the sharing of private information, this practice may cross the line, said Susan K. Tree, codirector of college counseling at Westtown School, a Pennsylvania preparatory school.

“Privacy is a hyper-sensitive issue,” Tree said. “The DOJ is concerned about any sharing of information that [families] don’t know about in advance.”

Still, she said, she wasn’t sure where the Justice Department would find a potential antitrust violation. “I don’t see it yet,” she said. “Maybe something is going to surface.”

Tree said sharing names of admitted early-decision students with other institutions isn’t a new practice. When she worked in admissions at Bates College in the 1980s, the school would share names of students who had been admitted and put down a deposit.

The Justice Department has accused colleges of collusion before. In the early 1990s, the federal agency brought a price-fixing case against the Ivy League colleges and 15 other prestigious schools in the Northeast, taking issue with discussions and meetings they held to set financial aid awards for students accepted to multiple institutions. The colleges defended their decades-long practice as a way to evenly distribute their limited financial aid dollars, to draw more needy students, and to also ensure that no one college ended up with all the low-income students because of their generous aid. Several colleges ultimately signed a consent agreement with the government and ended the collaboration.

It is unclear in the early-decision case what specific practices the Justice Department believes may violate antitrust laws, said Jeff Levy, a college admissions consultant in California.

While there are many pitfalls to college early-decision programs, the simple issue of information-sharing seems less troublesome, Levy said.

Admissions through the early-decision process tend to favor higher-income students who know to start their college application process early and may have consultants to help them prepare their essays, tests, and submissions ahead of the traditional schedule. It also limits a student’s ability to shop around for the best financial aid package by applying to several colleges, Levy said.

The early-decision process has also been criticized for locking young consumers into a major financial commitment without an opportunity to consider other options.

“It’s not a plan that students with need should be taking advantage of,” Levy said. “They need to compare offers.”

Still, the numbers of students likely affected by these early-decision practices remain small, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a trade group representing college presidents.

“This is the ultimate first-world problem in higher education,” Hartle said. “It’s a little uncertain as to where it’s going. There’s nothing that schools can do but wait it out.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.