Apr 30, 2010

Double-Depositing: A Victimless Crime?

A few years ago, the New York Times related how officials at Allegheny College were surprised to receive a commitment letter from a high school senior enclosing a check for $500 made out to … Lawrence University. Succumbing to hedge-your-bets syndrome, a conflicted young man hoped to purchase extra time by sending non-refundable deposits to two different institutions.

The schools conferred and decided to be merciful. Instead of revoking admission, they gave the boy 24 hours to decide between schools. And he did.

Colleges are not usually so understanding. Acknowledging that decisions are tough, the admissions “system” settled on a May 1st “Candidates’ Reply Date,” supported by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). To put some teeth in the rule, colleges have the right to revoke admissions for anyone not responding or anyone choosing to send multiple deposits.

Unfortunately, those with disposable cash and who can’t bring themselves to decide, occasionally circumvent the system by sending more than one check. But instead of making this a truly costly decision—like submitting binding offers on a couple of houses—colleges elected to turn the issue into a matter of ethics. Parents, students, counselors, and anyone involved in the process are advised that it is unethical to engage in double-depositing. So the wealthy and unethical among us may weigh consequences and the likelihood of being caught before dropping more than one check in the mail.

While seemingly arbitrary, the May 1st deadline does make some sense. First, it’s a trade-off. The system agrees not to pressure you for a decision before that date, but expects you’ll be ready to commit unconditionally when it’s time. Yes, some colleges fudge this agreement by offering housing or other incentives to sign-up early, but most live by the arrangement.

And double-depositing clogs the system. As frustrating as waitlists may be, they exist for a reason. Once you give up a position at a college, the institution may offer it to someone else. If you’re holding on to several reservations, the system gets backed up and beds potentially remain unfilled in the fall. At this point, ethics give way to very real business outcomes that result from the practice.

Taking a less popular position on the matter, George Mason University dean of admissions Andrew Flagel proposes, “[Double-depositing] isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision.” He goes on to suggest a system that “embraces” the practice by encouraging honesty. How novel.

But really by May 1st, it’s time to move on. Waitlists and outstanding financial aid questions aside (these are the only grounds on which to ask for an extension), you’ve had months to think things over. Prolonging the decision-making process isn’t going to make the outcome better, only more stressful. And by the way, guidance counselors are the final gatekeepers in the process. It’s unethical for them to send final transcripts to more than one college or university on your behalf.

So congratulations on all you’ve accomplished, it’s time to decide!

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