I’ve mentioned this in comments here and there on the PT, and perhaps it’s obvious by my replies to many things related to higher ed, but I’ve been in and around colleges campuses since I arrived on one as a student athlete many years ago at age 17. With the exception of a short stint away from the ivory tower (at a job I got by virtue of my association w/ the ivory tower!), I have been on a half dozen or so campuses across the country as a student and/or faculty member, and as a staff worker. All this is to say that I gravitate towards higher ed news because it has a direct effect on my life and the way that I do my job, and because it’s a professional world I know and understand. I’m particularly fascinated by higher ed stories that break into a mainstream news cycle, outside of the world of Inside Higher Ed and its better, more serious cousin The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I want to talk a bit about one such story that broke recently. Nearly two weeks ago, a lawsuit was filed in federal court by law firms representing 5 students. The lawsuit alleges that 16 schools engaged in antitrust violations because their ‘price fixing’ methodology in determining the amount of financial aid for students was affecting the way admissions offices factor in a student’s ability to pay for college. Now, this sounds confusing and extremely not legal, but the thing to focus on here is not the way in which these universities determine the amount of financial aid students get, but instead the way this information is used. It is perfectly legal for these institutions (Yale, Georgetown, Northwestern, University of Chicago, MIT, U Penn, etc) to do this, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. What is *not* okay, the lawsuit alleges, is that these schools are determining the costs of attendance, inflating it to get more aid money, and then limiting the number of students with financial aid in favor of students who have a greater ability to pay. The only thing that keeps the ‘schools can determine the cost of attendance and financial aid packages’ thing above board is if this results in ‘need-blind’ admissions. ‘Need-blind’ is a term that refers to students’ ability to pay not being a factor in whether they are admitted.
There is legal precedent for this. Back in the 1990s Congress passed legislation exempting schools from antitrust violations for schools that practice need-blind admissions (which allowed the schools to create common guidelines for financial aid), but schools weren’t allowed to discuss aid offers for individual applicants. This meant that schools did not necessarily have to compete for low-income applicants like they had before, but it also meant that they couldn’t favor wealthy applicants in order to offset the money they were giving away in aid. I’m sure there’s a more complicated fiscal motivation for competing for low-income applicants that might seem counter intuitive to us non-admissions people, but I can certainly think of a clear ideological function for this legislation, which is that it helps elite institutions maintain the notion that higher ed is a tool of social mobility. Yes, maybe you can’t admit wealthy students along these lines, but you can advertise that you’re ‘need-blind’-now everyone has a chance to go to an elite institution, even if they don’t have the financial resources. They can push back on the idea that decades of meritocracy created an elite social class that seeks to perpetuate itself by maintaining the illusion that upward socioeconomic mobility is just a matter of being smart, working hard, and proving yourself in secondary school. Colleges want to make their alums happy, and there’s nothing alums and trustee boards love more than good press. That news story on the first-generation student whose bus driving dad and waitress mom encouraged their kid to study hard so that they’d get into an Ivy one day makes it seem like it’s possible for everyone now that it’s possible for one person, and elite institutions LOVE this narrative.
From the original WSJ reporting on this lawsuit: “While conspiring together on a method for awarding financial aid, which raises net tuition prices, defendants also consider the wealth of applicants and their families in making admissions decisions,” said Eric Rosen, a partner at Roche Freedman involved in the suit who was a lead prosecutor on the federal Varsity Blues college admissions-cheating investigation in 2019. (The Varsity Blues scandal is the one we all remember because some famous actors got their aggressively mediocre kids into top-flight schools).
In short, the suit says some schools are considering financial need, and it’s obvious because they give the kids of wealthy donors an edge to admission, and that they also engage in practices like considering finances when admitting students off wait lists or weighing admission into certain programs.
And maybe we see this news and think ‘well, we already know this, we know that these elitist, snobby schools want their rich kids from all over the world because these schools are already full of these kids and why would they change? This isn’t news. These are snobby trash people in their lofty towers looking down on everyone who isn’t seemingly fortunate enough to be in their place, either by accident of birth or some other stroke of good fortune, because that’s really what it takes. Being in the right place at the right time.’ The difference now is that we can objectively see this, and we can trace the history of this toxic meritocracy that has both bolstered and weakened the reputations of institutions where for every few wealthy students, there are students who did do the work, who are ambitious, smart, striving, and diverse, from rural areas, from suburbs, from urban areas. Maybe they benefitted from a plucky high school admissions counselor, maybe a program from one of these colleges themselves to encourage them to apply (they do that), but however they got there, the point is that they’re there, and that they matter, and that they deserve to not be mentioned in the same breath as those who students who, knowingly or not, exploited their social position in ways that even they don’t understand. It’s not enough to just understand injustice. You need receipts. And lawsuits like this- these are receipts.
One of the comments when this story was first posted got more than a few upvotes here. It said ‘burn Harvard to the ground.’ I’ve seen similar vitriol for Ivy League schools and other elite institutions and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, as an alum of more than a few elite schools, it didn’t sting a little. I’ve taught hundreds, and maybe thousands of students in my 14 years teaching at the most elite Universities in America. My Ph D is from one of the best universities in the world. And I cannot overstate how many students I see now who are in these institutions with their eyes wide open about what these institutions represent, but also about what they can leverage and use to effect change not only at their schools, but in the world. And that is worth salvaging, because for every Warren J. Warrington III who is somehow cruising through classes at Columbia, there are 5 kids who are going to get what they’re paying for, and they’re going to be out in the world not only with new knowledge, but an awareness of how to outmaneuver these people. Because they’re used to being underestimated and they know a LOT more about how Warren’s world works than Warren knows about how their world works. And that’s the good news at elite institutions.
The lawsuit claims that universities have overcharged recipients by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades. In other words, even if students are getting Pell grants and other federal money to attend school, schools are inflating their cost of attendance to make sure that that they get that money. And on the other hand, universities are denying admission to students because of their financial status- they are privileging wealthy applicants, and their claims of being ‘need-blind’ are in effect inaccurate.
In part, the lawsuit references a 2019 story in the Northwestern student newspaper, which revealed that the University President Morton Schapiro personally reviews applications and makes admissions decisions based on connections with wealthy donors and legacy students. You would think that someone would realize it’s not a good idea to talk about this to a student newspaper, but here we are:
The lede of the article: Of the over 40,000 applications Northwestern receives for undergraduate admissions, the vast majority are read by Christopher Watson, the dean of undergraduate admissions, and his staff. This year, a select pool of about 550 applicants had their files read and their admissions decisions made by University President Morton Schapiro.
While the Varsity Blues scandal exposed and punished rich parents, and the Harvard lawsuit laid bare the way that the rich shape various universities beyond favoritism with admissions (https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/10/18/day-three-harvard-admissions-trial/), this lawsuit has the potential to hold many institutions accountable, and I hope it succeeds. And I hope it succeeds precisely because I like these institutions, and I appreciate them for what they are knowing that there are hardworking students dedicated faculty and caring, competent administrators who go about making the most of the resources they have. These people are not ‘The Ivy League’ any more than citizens are their respective governments. I hope that the generally disingenuous PR campaigns these schools use to project their aura of prestige and intellectual rigor continue to be exposed for the good of all of us who have been forced, without even knowing it, to fight for a seat at the table while the privileged simply walk up and sit down, napkin on their lap.