Elite Universities Taken to Court: The One Case Hoping to Right Years of Wrongs

by Lanie Hymowitz ‘22

Source: New York Times

Published Mar. 3rd, 2022

Who owns the American Dream? It sounds like a pointless question. The whole essence of the American Dream–an individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps–is that it can be achieved by anyone…or perhaps anyone already born into the lap of luxury.

This January, five former students filed a class-action lawsuit in the Illinois Federal District Court against 16 elite universities, including their alma maters. The plaintiffs claim that nine of the defendants, Georgetown, MIT, Notre Dame, Columbia, Duke, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, and University of Pennsylvania have been making admissions decisions based on the financial backgrounds of prospective students. The other seven colleges being sued, Emory, Cornell, Rice, Brown, CalTech, Yale, and University of Chicago, are under investigation for inflating the price of tuition for admitted students receiving financial aid.

Simply put, the case is alleging that the admissions process for elite schools has been wrongly skewed in favor of highly wealthy students. 

The numbers don’t lie: a 2017 study by The New York Times found that around 25% of children from families in the top 1% enroll in elite colleges, compared to the 0.5% of children in the bottom fifth income bracket who attend. The study also stated that the student body of 38 colleges had more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. It was found that Yale University, one of the 38 sued institutions, enrolls 33 times more students from high-income than low-income families.

The question then emerges: how were these institutions able to socio-economically discriminate in their admissions process for so many years? The answer lies in the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994. Section 568 of the bill spawned the 568 Presidents Group, an organization that allows member colleges to collaborate and decide how to distribute financial aid, as long as their admissions process is need-blind.

The suit alleges that this consortium has been using a practice of price-fixing through their collaboration, meaning that active members in the 568 Presidents Group are participating in an illegal cartel. Without this collusion, colleges may be more inclined to give financial aid packages as a means of persuading students to enroll.

The majority of sued colleges refused to issue initial statements, though some maintain that they have been practicing fair financial aid proceedings. Though the results of this case remain unclear, the plaintiffs will continue their attempts to reshape the higher education system in the United States, raising voices for the next generation of deserving students.

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