College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Justice Department Probes College-Counseling Group

By Catherine Gewertz — January 10, 2018 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Justice is probing whether the ethics policy of a national college-admissions group violates federal antitrust law.

Inside Higher Ed reported the investigation into the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The Justice Department has been requesting information from people at NACAC, and at some colleges, who were involved in writing an updated version of NACAC’s ethics policy last year, Inside Higher Ed reported.

The publication obtained a copy of the Justice Department’s letter to NACAC, which says that the inquiry focuses on a possible agreement “to restrain trade among colleges and universities in the recruitment of students.” The department wants copies of “documents discussing the inclusion, drafting, enactment, enforcement of, or justifications for any section” of the new ethics policy, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Yesterday, in its biweekly newsletter to members—college counselors at high schools, and admissions counselors at colleges and universities—NACAC said the organization learned in November that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division had begun an “inquiry” into its code of ethics and practice. Members of its steering committee on admissions practices have received requests for information from the Department of Justice, the NACAC notice said.

“At present, we know little about the scope and intent of the inquiry, but we are cooperating fully to provide all requested documents,” the note to members said, adding that NACAC is “confident in the values” that shaped its ethics policy.

NACAC declined on Wednesday to comment further on the Justice Department inquiry.

It wasn’t immediately clear which sections of the policy caught the Justice Department’s attention. The overall aim of the policy is to safeguard students in the admissions process. One section, for instance, requires counseling and college-admissions professionals to provide students with “complete, truthful and factual information that will allow them to make informed” decisions and college comparisons.

But Inside Higher Ed noted that some sections of the policy “do limit college actions, and admissions experts fear that may be what the department is going after.”

In one section, for instance, the policy says that colleges “will not ask candidates, their counselors, their schools, or others to divulge or rank
order their college preferences on applications or other documents. They may ask the question verbally only if the answer will not be used to influence an admission, scholarship, or financial aid decision.”

In another, the policy says institutions “must not” offer incentives, such as special housing, scholarships, or enhanced financial aid, to students applying under an “early decision” plan.

Inside Higher Ed reported that this isn’t the first time federal investigators have raised questions about whether college ethics policies constitute antitrust violations. In 1991, after a Justice Department antitrust investigation, Ivy League institutions agreed to stop the practice of sharing financial-aid offers among themselves for students who were admitted to more than one member school, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed that he couldn’t imagine what sections of the ethics policy could constitute violations of federal law.

“I’m befuddled about the Justice Department’s interest, as I suspect will be the case for anyone who reads NACAC’s code of conduct,” he said. “This document encourages ethical admissions practices, and it’s hard to imagine why this code, which has been around for years, would suddenly be of interest to the Justice Department.”

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