Over 170,000 students deprived of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid. The extent of the damage estimated by the complainants is equal to the prestige of the establishments concerned: considerable. A lawsuit was filed Jan. 9 in Illinois Federal Court by several 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 colluding to downgrade 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 from it. They are thus authorized to establish common principles to assess the financial needs of applicants, provided they are not taken into account in their admission process. A practice indicated by the consortium “568 Presidents Group”, of which the 16 establishments are members or were members.
Favor high net worth candidates
The whole stake for the plaintiffs is therefore to demonstrate that the universities accused 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 high net worth 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 (…) therefore escapes the exemption from antitrust laws. “
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To support its argument, the plaintiffs’ legal team cites numerous admissions officers and university officials in its complaint. Among them, Richard Brodhead, who admitted while chairman of Duke: “It would be naive to say that a university should not pay attention to a family’s ability to help the establishment” and that a family’s ability to donate to their establishment was ” one more “ for admissions. Jean Scott, former director of undergraduate admissions at Duke, also cited in the complaint, said that ” few hundreds ” of applicants received special attention each year as children of potential donors.
Same story at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Cited 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 get a boost. “
A “baseless” complaint
If many universities have not reacted, the spokeswoman for Yale, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, affirms that the financial aid policy of his university is “100% compliant with all applicable laws”. The spokesperson for Brown University 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 (or € 52,306), a year at Columbia $ 60,514. Students who attend such undergraduate institutions tend to come from privileged backgrounds – their families’ average incomes ranging from $ 134,000 for the University of Chicago to $ 229,100 for Georgetown.