Justice Department Investigating Pomona For Possible Early Decision Admissions Data Sharing

The Sumner Hall Admissions plaque.
Pomona College has been ordered by the Department of Justice to preserve communications and records about the sharing of personal data about students admitted Early Decision with other schools (Sarah Grazel-Ward • The Student Life)

Pomona College is among a group of small liberal arts colleges under investigation by the Department of Justice for potential antitrust violations, according to a Wall Street Journal article published Wednesday.

The DOJ appears to be investigating whether the schools share specific identifying information about individual applicants accepted under early decision.

Reports indicate that the schools involved use this information to check whether students are applying to more than one early decision school or submitting regular decision applications after being accepted under an early decision agreement, which violates the terms of the binding agreement.

The DOJ issued letters last Thursday and Friday to at least seven highly selective small liberal arts schools, including Pomona, Williams College, Amherst College, Wesleyan University, Middlebury College, Wellesley College, and Grinnell College, instructing them to preserve records relating to the sharing of admissions information, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Students applying by early decision choose a path and process with conditional requirements,” Pomona College spokesperson Mark Kendall wrote in an email to TSL. “Per the Common Application early decision agreement, applicants are made aware that Pomona at times shares limited information with other institutions in order to verify their continued commitment to the early decision process.”

Kendall added that Pomona complies with the National Association for College Admissions Counseling code of ethics. He declined to comment on the DOJ letter specifically.

Pitzer College spokesperson Anna Chang told TSL that Pitzer did not receive a letter from the DOJ.

Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College did respond to a request for comment from TSL on whether they have also received letters from the DOJ or share early admissions data with other schools. Claremont McKenna College spokesperson Peter Hong told TSL he would look into the situation, but did not provide additional information by press time.

A dean of admissions at one of the New England schools that received a DOJ letter said their institution swaps information with about 20 other schools, including application identification numbers, names, and home states of applicants admitted early decision, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s a very informal I-show-you-mine, you-show-me-yours kind of thing,” an enrollment official at one of the schools involved said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We don’t want to put out offers of admission to students who’ve committed to other places. This process is just verifying that somebody hasn’t been admitted to another college under a binding early-decision program.”

A 2016 U.S. News and World Report article reported that a group of about 30 schools, including Amherst College, share lists of early decision admissions, according to Amherst Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Katharine Fretwell.

The DOJ letter asks the colleges to maintain a variety of materials related to the issue, including any agreements to “exchange or otherwise disclose the identities of accepted students with persons at other colleges or universities,” as well as internal documents, communications, and records relating to this topic or such agreements.

Admissions officials contacted by Inside Higher Ed said they did not believe that sharing early decision information violates any laws because students, their parents, and their high school counselors sign a waiver on the Common Application allowing institutions that admit them early decision may share this information.

Some admissions officials seemed befuddled by the DOJ’s interest in this matter.

“The purpose of this is to make sure that students are living up to their end of the bargain with early decision,” one admissions official told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s not impinging the student’s access to educational opportunity. I can’t understand why the Justice Department is concerned about this.”

This is a developing story. It will be updated as more information becomes available.

This article was updated April 12 to include Chang’s and Kendall’s responses to TSL.
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