Decision Concludes Three-Year InvestigationBy Reuven M. Lerner
MIT's battle with the Department of Justice began nearly three years ago, when the government began an investigation into allegations that the 23 members of the Overlap Group had broken the law by sharing financial aid data every spring.
Overlap Group members -- the eight Ivy League schools, the 12 Great Lakes College Association schools, eight women's colleges, and MIT -- said they would cooperate fully with investigators, who at the time remained silent about their eventual goals.
At MIT, administrators compiled and submitted information on tuition, faculty and administrative salaries, and student financial aid. James J. Culliton, vice president for financial operations, called the collection effort "a very, very large burden."
The investigation, which focused on whether the schools had determined financial aid and tuition rates as a group, was thought at the time to be the largest probe ever conducted by the Justice Department.
From the beginning, Overlap members freely admitted that they had negotiated financial aid packages for individual students at their annual spring meetings. Each school would independently calculate the amount each student's family could afford to pay. These figures were adjusted at the meeting in order tomake the packages from each school similar or identical. This would allow students to choose a university without regard to its cost, the schools said.
But the Justice Department disagreed, and last year accused the Ivy League Overlap schools and MIT of price-fixing in a federal lawsuit. All of the Ivy League schools decided not to contest the suit, and signed a consent form in which they promised, among other things, "that they will no longer collude or conspire on financial aid." The schools also agreed "not to discuss or agree on future tuition or faculty salary increases," although the issues of tuition and faculty salaries were not mentioned in the suit.
Throughout this process, MIT adamantly insisted it had not broken any laws. Provost Mark S. Wrighton said, "Our interest all along has been providing the maximum amount of financial aid. ... in a way that allows students of modest means to have the kind of education that we offer."
In June, the Justice Department made its case against the Institute at a two-week trial held at the Federal District Court in Philadelphia. Court observers predicted at the trial's conclusion that a decision would probably come in September. Soon after Judge Louis C. Bechtle's 49-page decision was handed down yesterday morning, MIT announced plans to appeal.