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Overlap Decision Is Step Forward

On Friday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that MIT should have another opportunity to defend itself against charges that it participated in an illegal trust when it met with Ivy Leagues schools to set the amount of financial aid for students admitted to the schools. The decision is good news both for the Institute and for all supporters of access to the nation's top universities for needy students.

The benefits of the so-called Overlap Group are clear, and in the new trial ordered by the appeals court, MIT will have another opportunity to demonstrate those benefits. By agreeing to use the same formula to determine the amount of financial aid a student should receive and by agreeing to distribute aid only on the basis of need, the Overlap schools guaranteed that the financial aid was distributed to as many students as possible.

The need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid policies followed by MIT should be goals of every university and punishing the schools who do follow these policies is nonsensical. These policies provide access to higher education for thousands of students who could not afford it otherwise. Over the last 30 years, need-blind admissions have also opened the doors of top universities to minority students. MIT's diversity is due, to a certain extent, to the success of its aid policies.

Because the appeals court ruled that the Overlap Group was essentially commercial in nature, MIT's defense of Overlap will be more difficult. The Institute must show that Overlap had significant social and economic advantages. It must also show that meeting with other schools to set financial aid levels was the only means to accomplish its goals; the second task is challenging, primarily because Stanford University has the same aid policy, but did not participate in the Overlap Group.

The legal wrangling the Institute must contend with to defend itself is ridiculous. It is inconceivable that the Sherman Antitrust Act was ever intended to prevent universities from providing access to as many needy students as possible. Even if the courts find that MIT technically violated antitrust laws, one wonders why the Justice Department ever brought the case to trial.

In any event, MIT must continue its admissions and financial aid policies -- even if the legal system eventually rules against it. Giving all students access to education and promoting a diverse student body should be principles that guide the Institute in all its activities.