Columbia University agrees to settle its portion of a lawsuit filed for violation of an antitrust exemption. This decision comes two years after the lawsuit was initially filed, after increasing pressure from lawyers and the imminent threat of a growing settlement.

On Tuesday, Columbia and four other universities—Brown, Duke, Emory, and Yale—agreed to settle a 2022 lawsuit that claimed the institutions violated a former antitrust exemption by determining admissions results based on students’ financial backgrounds. Columbia University, among 16 other universities, was named a defendant in the lawsuit, filed in Illinois by eight former students. The class-action lawsuit claimed that the universities breached agreements to be need-blind when evaluating student admissions, violating the antitrust law exemption. In the process, the suit claimed, around 200,000 students over the past two decades have been overcharged as universities reduced financial aid given to students from working- and middle-class families. 

The 17 universities were members of the 568 Presidents Group, a consortium of highly selective, need-blind institutions given a federal antitrust exemption in Section 568 of the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act. According to the Federal Trade Commission, antitrust laws aim to increase competition, remove monopolies, and lower prices by prohibiting price-fixing practices. Through this exemption, need-blind institutions were able to share methods of calculating financial need for awarded student aid. The antitrust exemption expired in the fall of 2022 and the group disbanded in November 2022, after the lawsuit was filed. 

Despite the 17 institutions named in the suit denying the claims, a Tuesday court filing listed the five universities as having agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying a collective $104.5 million. According to the Washington Post, many of these institutions claim “they did nothing wrong and insist the lawsuit is without merit.” By settling the case, universities hope to avoid further litigation. 

According to a lawyer who spoke with the New York Times, settlement amounts were increased after each agreement in order to “exert pressure on non-settling defendants to reach agreement imminently or risk having to pay significantly more by waiting.” The University of Chicago was the first defendant to settle, agreeing to pay $13.5 million in August. Rice, settling in October, will pay $33.8 million. Among the remaining settled universities—Yale, Emory, Brown, Duke, and Vanderbilt—Columbia and Duke have agreed to pay the greatest amounts of $24 million each. In total, eight of the 17 named universities have agreed to settle. All of the institutions named in the lawsuit have previously attempted to have the suit dropped, all unsuccessfully. 

The Washington Post states that the settlement amounts will be distributed as cash payments to “the entire class of affected undergraduate students,” including universities that have yet to settle. 

Columbia University via Bwog Archives