A lawsuit filed in federal court on Sunday named Columbia as one of 16 schools allegedly violating antitrust law by colluding to reduce financial aid awarded to students.

Columbia was one of the 16 schools named in a class-action lawsuit filed Sunday in Chicago on behalf of five alumni of schools accused of working together to reduce the amount of financial aid awarded to students. The plaintiffs claim that the schools “have participated in a price-fixing cartel” that seeks to “reduce or eliminate financial aid as a locus of competition,” resulting in artificial inflation of the net cost of attendance for students receiving financial aid.

The other schools named in the suit include Brown, CalTech, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Rice, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, and Yale.

Under federal antitrust law, the schools are allowed to collaborate on financial aid formulas so long as they are need-blind—that is, the ability of an applicant to pay does not impact the school’s admissions decision. 

However, the suit alleges that Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, Notre Dame, UPenn, and Vanderbilt are not need-blind and that because the 16 schools collaborate, the accused illegal practices of nine of the schools would render the actions of all 16 schools unlawful.

The suit alleges that these schools have found ways to consider applicants’ ability to pay—like when accepting students off of the waitlist for admission—which the suit alleges UPenn and Vanderbilt have done. The suit also specifically mentions the “special treatment” given to applicants whose parents are wealthy donors, saying that given a class’s limited amount of spots, “the advantage given to one group entails a disadvantage imposed on the other. Privileging the wealthy and disadvantaging the financially needy are inextricably linked; they are two sides of the same coin.”

Furthermore, the suit specifically takes aim at Columbia’s practice of limiting financial aid for students in the School of General Studies. According to the suit, Columbia openly admits that it does not practice need-blind admissions for GS students, and the suit notes that Columbia has used General Studies to fund new University projects such as expansions and new buildings. The suit also states that the School of General Studies recruits a more socioeconomically diverse student body than Columbia’s other undergraduate schools, thus resulting in “the burden of supporting Columbia’s preservation of prestige and financial accumulation therefore fall[ing] on those who can least afford it.” Roughly 40% of GS students receive Pell Grants, compared to 16% of CC and SEAS students. 

The former students are represented by Roche Freedman LLP, Gilbert Litigators, Berger Montague, and FeganScott. The firms have established a website, and encourage students who attended Columbia or other defendant institutions from 2003 or later and who received partial grant-based financial aid to use the website to contact them.

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