The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuit against Georgetown, other schools, renews questions over admissions practices

University says it is committed to affordability and allocated $135 million in undergraduate aid last year

Georgetown University is challenged in a lawsuit over financial aid. (Sarah Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Georgetown University touts itself as one of the first institutions to admit undergraduates without any consideration of their ability to pay, a decision the Jesuit school says brings in students with wide-ranging experiences and backgrounds to the benefit of the university.

But a lawsuit filed last week raises questions about whether Georgetown and 15 other elite schools professing to be need-blind are living up to that ideal. Rather than fostering socioeconomic diversity, a group of former students says, the universities are chasing wealth and prestige while limiting scholarships to middle-class families.

The 16 institutions — including Duke, Columbia and Vanderbilt universities — are current or former members of the 568 Presidents Group, a consortium that collaborates on aid formulas through what they call a consensus approach.

The colleges named in the lawsuit represent a tiny segment of American higher education. But because they are so sought-after, and so emblematic of the promise and possibilities higher education can offer, the case resonates with students and families who have struggled to afford tuition. The very idea that institutions with massive endowments would collude to shortchange students touched a nerve.

“Students and parents believe that if they are admitted, it’s because of talent and hard work. This lawsuit suggests that often it’s because of wealth. Colleges are saving on financial aid by biasing admissions in favor of people who don’t need the help,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who runs the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University.

Meghan Dubyak, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, declined to discuss the lawsuit but emphasized the university’s commitment to access and affordability.

Georgetown “is one of just a few dozen schools across the nation that admits undergraduate U.S. students without consideration of a student’s ability to afford the cost of attendance and meets their full demonstrated financial need,” Dubyak said.

Some experts questioned the lawsuit on its merits or on its relevance to the broader issue of college affordability.

“The idea of colluding to try to limit financial aid is not something most colleges can do,” said Robert Kelchen, professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, because they’re trying to attract as many students as they can.

Collectively, many Americans struggle with how to pay for things that are greatly valued, such as higher education, said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education. “When somebody tries to shine a light on something they claim to be unfair, it’s an easy thing to get behind without knowing the details.”

In this case, the details are going to be difficult, he said, with a lawsuit regarding a nuanced issue. “They can allege almost anything,” McDonough said. “To be honest, my money’s on the schools in this case.”

At Georgetown, where longtime president John J. DeGioia is one of the leaders of the 568 Presidents Group, the allegations have reinforced some students’ belief that the university’s purported efforts at inclusion are merely performative.

“There’s constant references to our Jesuit heritage and caring about these things, but Georgetown is a business,” said Amanda Feldman, a senior majoring in international politics at Georgetown. “At the heart of a lot of its dealings is trying to make money.”

Feldman and classmate Adam Shaham petitioned Georgetown in 2020 to end legacy admission, a practice of giving special preference to the children of alumni. DeGioia had issued a statement in support of racial equality following the murder of George Floyd, and the pair seized on the moment to address a policy they say perpetuates inequity.

The petition, which received more than 500 signatures from students, faculty and alumni, was largely ignored by university leaders, according to Feldman and Shaham.

“It feels like Georgetown is paying lip service to values like community, diversity,” said Shaham, a senior studying international culture and politics. “At the end of the day, those statements don’t commit the school to the structural change it needs.”

Nine percent of the Class of 2024 are legacy students, according to Georgetown, which pointed out that another 13 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

The university said the percentage of Hoyas from families earning less than $67,000 was 14 percent in fall 2019, the most recent year for which the data is available. About 55 percent of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid.

Dubyak said the university made its largest investment ever in financial aid last year, with more than $135 million allocated to undergraduate students.

The lawsuit claims Georgetown and its peers crafted a methodology that limits the aid they offer. Attorneys say the formula used by the consortium of universities is “explicitly aimed to reduce or eliminate price competition among its members.” They claim the schools have “artificially inflated” the net price of attendance for those receiving financial aid and conspired to keep that net price high.

“Let’s be logical for a second,” McDonough said. It wouldn’t make sense for them to do that as individual schools, he said, “let alone conspire with each other to do that. If you look at the list of schools, they want each others’ superstars.”

A 1994 federal statute allows colleges to sidestep antitrust laws and collaborate with each other on determining financial aid standards, but only if they admit everyone without considering financial need.

Attorneys for the students argue that the universities are more wealth-aware than need-blind as they routinely admit children of deep-pocketed donors or alumni because of what their parents can contribute.

The lawsuit cites past interviews from Georgetown’s longtime director of admissions, Charles Deacon, with the student newspaper and other media. In one instance, Deacon acknowledged in a 2015 article in the Hoya that families’ wealth could tip admissions decisions.

“If you were very close to the edge and the family’s given to the annual fund every year or something, that might be enough of a tip to get you in,” Deacon said. “If you’re a little farther from the edge, but the family has built Regents Hall, that might tip a little farther.”

Representatives for Georgetown declined to discuss details of the lawsuit.

The case also cites other media accounts with quotes from admissions directors as well as former admissions directors of highly selective schools questioning the motive and impact of the 568 President Group’s methodology.

In one account from 2008, the lawsuit says, Harvard University’s then-director of financial aid, Sally Donahue, said the Ivy League school never joined the group because its formula would have yielded financial aid packages that were smaller than what Harvard wanted to award.

That same year, when Yale University left the group, its then-director of student financial services, Caesar Storlazzi, told the student newspaper: “By leaving the 568 Group, Yale is now free to give families more aid than they would have gotten under the consensus methodology.” He said, “The percentage of a family’s income and assets that Yale takes as a parental contribution is now lower than the percentage taken by 568 schools.”

Yale, one of the 16 schools named in the lawsuit, returned to the 568 Group in 2018. The university did not respond to questions about its involvement in the consortium but said Monday that its “financial aid policy is 100 percent compliant with all applicable laws.”

To be successful in the lawsuit, the former students would have to show they have been harmed, Kelchen said. Some could show they might have gotten less money because of the methodology, he said, but “it would be really hard to show in many cases.”

For many of these wealthy and selective colleges, “if you have significant financial need, these colleges will do their best to meet your need,” Kelchen said.