This Wall Street Journal article, “Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe,” and associated news reports (here, here and here) merit a few days of discussion. Day 1.

The targets of a new federal probe into possible antitrust violations related to early-decision college admissions include Wesleyan University, Middlebury College and Pomona College, as well as at least four other highly selective liberal-arts schools.

The Justice Department sent letters late last week notifying the schools of the investigation and asking them to preserve emails and other messages detailing arrangements they may have with other schools about swapping names of admitted students, and how they might use that information.

1) Did Williams play a role in helping reporter Melissa Korn? (Note that Williams appears in the title and is pictured in the accompanying photo.) I hope we did! The more that folks like Liz Creighton ’03 schmooze with major media, the easier it is to get our message/brand out.

2) Wasn’t this story originally broken at Inside Higher Ed? If so, does Korn have an obligation to mention this even if she got a copy of the letter independently? Inside Higher Ed provides this relevant background:

For years, some elite colleges — members of what was then called the Overlap Group — shared financial information on admitted applicants, seeking to agree upon common aid offers. But in 1991, Ivy League institutions agreed to stop sharing such information. The agreement followed a Justice Department investigation into the practice, which the universities said promoted fairness but that the department said was an antitrust violation.

Generally, college leaders have said the Overlap Group investigation discouraged them from sharing any information about applicants.

We have covered the Overlap scandal before. (There is a great senior thesis waiting to be written about that, either in history or economics.)

Back to the WSJ:

All the schools targeted offer prospective students the option to apply under binding early-decision agreements, which often have significantly higher acceptance rates than do regular-decision pools. If the applicant is offered admission, he or she must commit to attending and withdraw applications to other schools or risk having the admission offer rescinded.

Higher-education experts say it seems the Justice Department investigation is focusing on whether the schools are violating antitrust regulations by sharing the names of admitted students to enforce the rules of the programs.

Two options:

1) This is stupid and goes nowhere. Why can’t Williams tell the world who it has accepted early decision? Is there any law that would prevent it from just posting that list on the web, in the same way it records every graduate in the course catalog? Lawyer comments welcome! And, if it can post that list, why can’t it send an e-mail to Harvard admissions with the same information?

2) This is stupid and goes somewhere. Even if colleges stopped sharing these lists tomorrow, nothing would change. The number of students who try to game the system is trivial. But, since the colleges were so absurdly sleazy in their conduct during Overlap, I would not begrudge the Justice Department forcing them to stop all communications. Recall Adam Smith:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Entire article is below the break, for those without WSJ access.

Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe
At least seven elite colleges received letters from the Justice Department asking about information they share on students

By Melissa Korn
April 11, 2018 5:30 a.m. ET
78 COMMENTS

The targets of a new federal probe into possible antitrust violations related to early-decision college admissions include Wesleyan University, Middlebury College and Pomona College, as well as at least four other highly selective liberal-arts schools.

The Justice Department sent letters late last week notifying the schools of the investigation and asking them to preserve emails and other messages detailing arrangements they may have with other schools about swapping names of admitted students, and how they might use that information.

All the schools targeted offer prospective students the option to apply under binding early-decision agreements, which often have significantly higher acceptance rates than do regular-decision pools. If the applicant is offered admission, he or she must commit to attending and withdraw applications to other schools or risk having the admission offer rescinded.

Higher-education experts say it seems the Justice Department investigation is focusing on whether the schools are violating antitrust regulations by sharing the names of admitted students to enforce the rules of the programs.

Other recipients of the letters include Amherst College, Wellesley College, Williams College and Grinnell College. At least one institution with an early-action admission option, which is less restrictive than early decision as students aren’t bound to attend if admitted, also received a letter, according to a person familiar with that school.

Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the letters or scope of the probe.

The investigation has perplexed some in elite-college admissions circles, who say that sharing the information serves only to ensure that schools aren’t being misled about an applicant’s intentions, given their commitments elsewhere.

The admissions dean of a New England liberal-arts college that received the Justice Department letter said that the school swaps with about 20 other institutions the application-identification number, name and home state of students admitted early decision.

That dean said it is rare to find someone who violated the binding early-decision agreement by applying to more than one institution early.

Occasionally, the person said, they come across a student who was admitted early-decision at one school and still applied elsewhere during the regular application cycle. In those cases, the second school would withdraw the application because the candidate already committed elsewhere.

The dean said the schools don’t share information about regular-decision candidates, so an offer from one school wouldn’t affect outcomes elsewhere.

Some college counselors said they are pleased to see the early-decision practice investigated because it puts too much pressure on young adults and the penalties for being caught breaking an early-decision agreement are too stiff.

“I don’t think it is developmentally appropriate to ask a 17-year-old to front-load a decision like this, and when colleges are taking a half or more of their class early, it demands that some kids do this,” said Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H.

But Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, which represents nearly 1,800 colleges, universities and education groups, said students who choose to apply in a binding early-decision program know the terms of the agreement, and don’t have to apply early if they want more freedom.

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