Admissions Tool Survives Antitrust Challenge

Federal judge's ruling in medical school case outlines when antitrust could apply to admissions, and opinion could help with scrutiny some are facing over early decision.

January 22, 2019
 
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A federal judge this month rejected a lawsuit that challenged the admissions policies of Yale University's medical school. Of potential interest to admissions leaders generally, part of the lawsuit that the judge rejected was over the use of a system in which medical schools shared information on which applicants they had accepted. The plaintiff in the case, who was rejected by Yale University's medical school, said that this system enabled the school to discriminate against him. But the judge found that antitrust law did not apply to the system.

The plaintiff in the case argued that Yale rejected him, despite granting him an interview and his outstanding academic record, because he is a white Republican. While the court did not find sufficient evidence for this claim, the part of the lawsuit that may have broader applicability concerns is what Judge Christopher Cooper termed an alleged "conspiracy" that the suit asserted existed between Yale, the Association of American Medical Colleges and other AAMC members.

The alleged conspiracy concerns the use by the medical schools of an AAMC system, called the Multiple Acceptance Report (MAR), that tells medical schools which applicants have been admitted to other medical schools.

The issue of sharing information about applicants has been a controversial one -- and has in the past landed some colleges in legal difficulty.

For years, some elite colleges -- members of what was then called the Overlap Group -- shared financial information on admitted applicants, seeking to agree on 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 the department said was an antitrust violation.

More recently, the Justice Department started an investigation last year into whether the early-decision programs of some undergraduate colleges violated antitrust law. The investigation appears to be based on a report of colleges circulating lists of those admitted through binding early-decision programs -- in which applicants pledge to enroll if admitted -- so that these admitted applicants could not apply elsewhere.

Those colleges may be encouraged by Judge Cooper's ruling, which distinguishes between colleges' financial policies (which he said should be covered by antitrust law) and admissions decisions, which he said should not be.

"The Sherman Act applies only to conspiracies that restrain 'trade or commerce,'" Judge Cooper wrote. "Decisions by academic institutions about which and how many students to admit are noncommercial and therefore not covered by the Sherman Act … The Sherman Act was certainly not intended to provide a forum wherein disgruntled applicants to medical school could challenge their rejections."

Judge Cooper then specifically cited court rulings on the Overlap Group's activities to say that the Sherman Act applied there because the awarding of financial aid is a kind of "trade or commerce" that the act is intended to regulate.

While the MAR was apparently legal, it has been abandoned.

AAMC officials could not be reached to say why, but they provided this statement from John Prescott, the association's chief academic officer, about why the system had been used:

"Unlike other graduate degree programs, medical schools have limited to no flexibility in class size, as each seat in the class requires classroom space as well as access to clinical facilities (typically in teaching hospitals) to learn the practice of patient care. If a matriculated student leaves after a semester has begun to attend another medical school, the school cannot simply fill the seat with another applicant, as vital training time has been lost. To prevent unfilled seats, medical schools closely manage yield projections, including in some cases by increasing the number of acceptances offered. The now-retired report referenced in the court’s decision was a yield management tool, provided by the AAMC, which showed accepted applicants holding concurrent acceptances at multiple schools."

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