Over 170,000 students deprived of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid. The extent of the damage estimated by the plaintiffs is commensurate with the prestige of the establishments concerned: considerable. A lawsuit was filed January 9 in federal court in Illinois by multiple law firms on behalf of five alumni (alumni) of Duke University, Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University.
The former students accuse sixteen of the country’s most elite private universities – including their own – of illegally conspiring to cut back the amount of financial support they have offered to students over the past two decades.
The sixteen schools are being sued for violating antitrust laws, prohibiting agreements between competitors. In the United States, the Federal Education Act of 1994 partially exempts universities. They are thus authorized to establish common principles for assessing the financial needs of applicants, provided that they do not take them into account in their admission process. A practice indicated by the “568 Presidents Group” consortium, of which the 16 establishments are members or have been members.
Favor wealthy candidates
The challenge for the plaintiffs is therefore to demonstrate that the accused universities had to respect the antitrust laws. The complaint filed in early January specifies that at least nine of them – Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn and Vanderbilt – “have, for many years, favored wealthy applicants in the admissions process”. For the others, it indicates that all the accused have “conspired to reduce the amount of financial aid they provide to admitted students. This conspiracy (…) thus escapes the exemption of the antitrust laws. »
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In support of its case, the plaintiffs’ legal team cites numerous admissions officers and university officials in its complaint. Among them, Richard Brodhead, who admitted while he was president of Duke: “It would be naive to say that a university should not pay attention to a family’s ability to help the institution” and that a family’s ability to donate to their facility was ” one more “ for admissions. Jean Scott, former director of undergraduate admissions at Duke, also named in the complaint, opined that ” few hundreds ” candidates each year received special attention as the children of potential donors.
Same story at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Quoted in the complaint, its former manager, McGreggor Crowley admitted in March 2019 that “every year, regardless of what a university says publicly, a number of children of wealthy donors and alumni receive a boost. »
An “unfounded” complaint
If many universities have not reacted, the Yale spokesperson, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, says his university’s financial aid policy is “100% compliant with all applicable laws”. A Brown University spokesperson said the complaint was ” unfounded “.
The tuition fees of the institutions targeted by this complaint are particularly high. A year of license at Yale currently costs 59,950 dollars (52,306 €), a year at Columbia 60,514 dollars. Students attending such undergraduate institutions tend to come from privileged backgrounds – their average family incomes range from $134,000 at the University of Chicago to $229,100 at Georgetown.