Williams College among schools in investigation into early decision practices

WILLIAMSTOWN — Williams College is one of several colleges and universities being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for potentially violating antitrust laws in their early-decision admissions practices, according to the college and The Wall Street Journal.

"The Department of Justice sent Williams and other schools a letter instructing them to retain communications and materials related to the early decision process," Williams college spokesman Jim Reische told the Eagle this month. "We will of course cooperate fully, as we do with any request of this nature."

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the letters recently sent to at least seven colleges notified them to preserve emails and other messages detailing arrangements they might have had with other schools about "swapping names of admitted students, and how they might use that information."

Typically, early-decision programs offered by colleges, including Williams, are binding. Prospective students can apply under an early-decision program for their top choice college and, if admitted, are expected to attend the school and withdraw all other college applications.

"We're cooperating with DOJ through their process, and antitrust issues can take years," Reische said. "We'll fully share with them all information they request about our (early-decision) practices, and then they'll decide what materials to make public."

Other colleges that received the letter were Amherst College, Grinnell College, Middlebury College, Pomona College, Wellesley College and Wesleyan University, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Maria Laskaris, former dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College, said that at one time, sharing lists of students admitted through early decision was a common practice to try to ensure that students were only using the program for their top-choice schools.

"I think there was a time when a lot of schools would regularly share lists of students that were admitted under binding early-decision offers," said Laskaris, who left Dartmouth in 2016 and works as a senior admissions counselor at Top Tier Admissions, a college consultant organization. "It was an effort to ensure that there weren't students that were getting multiple binding offers. The number of schools that shared those lists have actually decreased during my time."

The number of schools participating in early-decision sharing decreased, partially because the Common Application, a medium used to apply for schools, started requiring more consent from students applying early, according to Laskaris. There were also concerns about whether sharing admissions information with other colleges without the consent of the applicant was appropriate, she said.

Laskaris said that while she is not familiar with the details of the ongoing DOJ investigation, it resembles the "price-fixing" antitrust case from the late 1980s in which 20 elite colleges, including those in the Ivy League, were accused of engaging in a practice of offering the same students virtually the same amount of financial aid.

In her experience, Laskaris said, sharing lists of early-decision students wasn't a conspiracy to fix financial aid packages, but rather to ensure that students weren't violating the early-decision guidelines.

"I think when the practice began, it was just to ensure that students weren't holding more than one binding offer," she said. "I don't think there was any effort to conspire of fix financial aid."

The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether there was an ongoing investigation.

"Per policy, the Department does not acknowledge, deny, or confirm the existence of investigations," department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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