The nation’s top private universities have long faced a tricky dilemma: They claim to be meritocratic institutions, educating the best and the brightest, regardless of wealth, and yet year after year they enroll a student body that leans a lot to the rich. Research from a few years ago found that Yale University had 33 times more rich kids than poor kids; Duke University, 18 times more; and Brown University, 17 times more.
These colleges nevertheless insist on welcoming students from all financial backgrounds, citing their “needs-blind” admissions as evidence.
These colleges nonetheless insist on welcoming students from all financial backgrounds, citing as evidence their “need-blind” admissions — meaning they don’t discriminate in admissions against low-income and working-class families who cannot pay prices close to $80,000. one year.
However, a new antitrust class action lawsuit, brought by former students against 16 elite universities, is seeking to blow up that claim. Under Section 568 of the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, plaintiffs allege that universities are permitted to meet periodically and agree to use a common formula that limits student financial aid, but only if” all students are admitted on the basis of need,” which the law defines as “without regard to the financial circumstances of the individual student or the student’s family.” In other words, if universities want to s hear about establishing financial aid, they must agree not to discriminate in admissions based on the student’s family finances.(Most colleges named in the lawsuit declined to comment or did not did not respond when contacted by NBC News earlier this week; Yale, CalTech and Brown sent statements denying any wrongdoing.)
The lawsuit alleges that 16 colleges in the “568 Cartel” are breaking the law because many, if not all, are not truly admissions blind and effectively discriminate in favor of wealthy applicants. In the zero-sum game of selective admissions, discriminating in favor of the advantaged, by definition, discriminates against everyone else. “Privilege the wealthy and disadvantage the needy are inextricably linked,” the plaintiffs argued. “These are two sides of the same coin.”
The legal complaint is replete with quotes from loose-lipped admissions officers who would admit that the wealthy routinely receive favorable treatment during admissions. The complaint claimed at Dartmouth College, for example, up to 5% of the student body is admitted from a special list of students created by the development office. At Northwestern University, the university president personally reviews hundreds of applicants, including those associated with wealthy donors. At the University of Pennsylvania, the complaint claimed that applicants from wealthy families were “tagged” as a “high priority for the institution.”
These practices are pervasive, according to the complainants. They quoted former Vanderbilt University president E. Gordon Gee, who said in 2019 that any president on a “truth serum” would admit that donor relations influence admissions decisions. And if the case moves forward, it will be fascinating to watch top college presidents and admissions officers be subjected to the legal system’s version of a truth serum: disclosure of records and sworn testimony outlining the extent of preferences given to the wealthy.
Eric Rosen, who was the lead prosecutor in the so-called Varsity Blues scandal, is among the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. Rosen noted the similarity between the two case series.
“Varsity Blues took the side door of admissions,” Rosen said in a statement, referring to actions such as the special treatment offered to applicants by athletic trainers who were personally bribed. “This case takes the back door,” in which the colleges themselves “favor wealthy applicants in making admissions decisions.”
Entry through the back door may be more distinguished than through the side door, as money exchanged for special favors fills the pockets of institutions rather than individuals, but either process reeks of corruption.
Cynics might say this is just old news: the wealthy have always been given special treatment in many areas of life, including admissions to elite colleges. But the lawsuit suggests that as long as universities violate need-blind admissions, they must give up their ability under Section 568 to collude to limit offers of financial aid. “The law doesn’t allow them to do both,” Rosen said.
As the plaintiffs pointed out, Harvard University, for example, refused to join the 568 group because it offers more generous financial aid to students than the group’s collective agreement allows. Harvard generally provides financial aid on a sliding scale for families earning up to $200,000 per year.
Universities would argue that collusion over financial aid helps students by forcing universities to focus aid on those who need it most. If universities compete for star students by giving them far more aid than they actually need, the pot of money for the most needy students could be exhausted. Since universities are unlikely to unilaterally back down in the competition for students with high SAT scores (but minimal financial need), the best solution is to collectively agree on fair levels of student aid. based on need, say the universities.
But if this noble case of collusion is correct, universities have a ready-made solution: they can become truly need-blind and stop favoring the wealthy. Indeed, some universities have recently begun to move in this direction on the related issue of legacy candidates. In October, Amherst College agreed to drop legacy preferences that favored children of alumni, similar to Johns Hopkins University, which dropped the practice in 2014. As the president of Hopkins, Ronald J. Daniels, in his insightful new book, “What Universities Owe Democracy,” while social mobility is healthy for democracy, “the inherited preference is stillness written as politics.”
The new antitrust lawsuit correctly noted that elite universities “are guardians of the American dream,” which provide a “critical pathway to upward mobility.” Indeed, Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard found that while top colleges admitted very few low-income students, those who attended did extraordinarily well after graduation. If the 568 lawsuit does indeed expose need-blind admissions as a charade, perhaps universities will finally feel pressure to pay more attention to efforts that have overcome the hurdles and are in fact deserving of special attention during the trial. admission.