LEWISTON — Bates, Colby and Bowdoin colleges are among at least nine elite secondary schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible violations of antitrust laws.

The alleged violations are for swapping information with competing colleges and universities about students who accept early-decision offers for admission.

A letter from the Justice department’s antitrust division sent to the colleges, first reported by Inside Higher Ed, says the probe is looking into “a potential agreement between colleges relating to their early-decision practices.”

It asks the colleges that received the letter, which include several schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, to preserve any material connected to the issue.

Marjorie Hall, the director for strategic communications at Bates, said Thursday the college “received a request from the Department of Justice to preserve records, and we have complied with this request.” She said she could not offer any additional information.

Bowdoin College is also “among the colleges that received this request from the Department of Justice, and we are cooperating fully with the request,” said its communications director, Doug Cook.

Kate Carlisle, Colby’s director of communications, confirmed Thursday the letter had also been sent to the Waterville college.

The Wall Street Journal reported that among the other colleges that received Justice department letters were Amherst College, Grinnell College, Middlebury College, Pomona College, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University and Williams College. Amherst and Grinnell have acknowledged receiving the letter.

It is not known exactly how many schools are under investigation.

The Justice Department did not respond to questions about the probe.

The issue under investigation appears to be tied to a common practice among elite colleges and universities to offer an early decision for applicants who agree to attend if they are accepted under early admissions.

Bates says on its website that for students who have decided Bates is their “first-choice college,” there are two rounds of early decision. “It’s understood that if you’re admitted at this time, you will withdraw your applications to other colleges,” the college website reads.

Schools might communicate with one another about early-decision candidates to make sure that students who agree to early-decision offers keep their promise to attend that school. But how much institutions discuss the issue among themselves is uncertain.

A 2005 law review article by Adam L. Henry laid out a case for how the early admission rules may violate antitrust laws.

Henry said that because students who agree to early decision can’t compare financial aid packages, there is an element of restricting competition, especially if colleges share lists of accepted students.

Henry argued that “a court should find the agreement currently in place among colleges, mutually enforcing early-decision commitments, to be an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Act.”

The Sherman Act, passed in 1890, aimed to ensure a competitive marketplace to protect consumers from abuses by trusts and other entities that might limit genuine competition in the marketplace.

Bates is coming off its most successful recruiting year ever.

It reported that 7,688 prospective students applied for admission in the class of 2022, a 45 percent increase over the previous year. It more than doubled the number of international applicants and saw sharp rises in the numbers of students applying from the Midwest, South and West.

A typical class at Bates has about 500 students. Last year, more than half of them were admitted by early decision.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the Justice Department asked colleges to maintain any formal or informal agreements “to exchange or otherwise disclose the identities of accepted students with persons at other colleges or universities.”

It also asked colleges to keep any communications they made related to admitted students, internal documents they possess on the issue, any records about decisions involving those students and other related documentation.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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