Williams College in Massachusetts is among the schools that received letters from the Justice Department asking about information they share on students during the admission process.
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he or she must commit to attending and withdraw applications to other schools or risk having the admission offer rescinded.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 schools that received the letters or were contacted by the Justice Department 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.
A 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 the penalties for being caught breaking an early-decision agreement are too stiff.
Some also say the process puts too much pressure on young adults.
“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.