Mar 16, 2016

What to do when a college pressures for a deposit before May 1

In the increasingly pressure-driven world of college admissions, one of the more concerning trends is the intensity of demands students receive to submit tuition and/or housing deposits before the May 1 “candidate’s reply date.” 

“Enrollment in our Fall 2016 class is limited and will fill on a space available basis. In previous years, many of our academic programs, as well as our residence halls, have filled quickly. Therefore I encourage you to send your deposit of $550 in the next six weeks.”

Although families are usually assured that deposits are “refundable” until May 1, they are also being threatened with the possibility that the student’s place in the class or some other desirable perk will be withdrawn without this early commitment.

The same university goes on to say, “Upon written request, extensions will be granted until May 1, 2016. You should know however, you might be sacrificing a space in your academic program and/or residence halls.”

So now the student is looking at the possibility of not only having nowhere to live, but there’s also a clear threat of academic repercussions including loss of desired major and/or forfeiture of a place in a desired program.

In this case, the university was referring to its highly desirable physical and occupational therapy programs, which do “fill” early. But the housing threat was a little less clear as housing is guaranteed for freshmen and all freshmen housing is virtually the same!

“It seems to me that more schools this year than ever before tied the housing deposit to the enrollment deposit—students could not send in a housing contract/deposit and get in line for housing without accepting the offer of admission,” said Golda Steier, a Pennsylvania-based independent educational consultant.  “I’ve heard from several parents that they are worried about not accepting an offer soon because their student will lose out on housing (or be assigned to the least desirable housing on campus).”

Colleges subscribing to the Candidate’s Reply Date Agreement (CRDA) and/or the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) are not supposed to demand deposits—refundable or not—before May 1 (May 2 if May 1 falls on Sunday as it does this year). The language could not be clearer as all postsecondary NACAC members agree they will

“…permit first-year candidates for fall admission to choose among offers of admission and institutionally-affiliated financial aid and scholarships until May 1, and state this deadline explicitly in their offers of admission…”

And effective for the 2017 admissions cycle, the statement goes on to add members will “not establish policies nor engage in practices whose effect is to manipulate commitments prior to May 1…”

The only exceptions to these rules would be for students applying under Early Decision agreements or some recruited athletes.

The Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admissions Counseling (PCACAC) Admissions Practices  (PCACAC) Committee, chaired by Jake Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School, recently considered these issues as part of a “case study” designed to help members deal with problems they encounter in the course of advising students on the college admissions process.

According to findings of the Committee, one of the most common violations of NACAC’s SPGP relate to colleges not adhering to the May 1 candidate’s reply date. And many complaints are received both at the local and national levels every year.

As Lou Hirsh, NACAC’s National Admissions Practices Chair, recently wrote, “One thing we are trying to impress upon colleges is that, apart from Early Decision, the only deposit/confirmation deadline that a college may cite is ‘May 1.”

What still remains a “gray” area is housing.

“When a college cannot house all of its first-year students, we must grudgingly acknowledge that they may need to assign housing on a first-come, first-served basis (which, of course, benefits early depositors) or set a housing deposit deadline that falls before May 1,” writes Mr. Hirsh. “On the other hand, when schools have sufficient housing and—especially—when schools have a policy of requiring first-year students to live on campus, then these early deadlines seem to have only one purpose, and that is to manipulate students into depositing before May 1.”

But this is where the question of a refund comes in. According to Inside Higher Ed, “Colleges are asking students for untold thousands of dollars in nonrefundable fees for dorm rooms they may never live in,” as some advance housing application fees and deposits are not ever returned even when the student isn’t ultimately accepted by the college or university.

Experts may differ on the difference between an application fee and a pre-payment or deposit, but if either serves to manipulate the student into making an enrollment decision early, the fee or the deposit would be in violation of the SPGP. And if either poses an undue financial burden for the family, especially in the event several colleges are requesting similar upfront payments, then something has to give.

So what should families do when confronted with these kinds of deposit requests? First contact the admissions office for clarification. Sometimes the language of these communications overstates the reality of the situation. Consult with your college counselor to make sure you’re not misinterpreting. If the school does require such a deposit, ask how to get an extension to May 1. In most cases, that should solve the problem.

If the college persists in its demands, the student should complete a NACAC Confidential Complaint form. The counselor’s and the student’s name and school will be kept confidential, but the information will be forwarded to the appropriate NACAC affiliate committee. The committee will then follow up with the college. And these communications are usually very successful in getting the problem promptly resolved.

Remember that no college or university can force a decision before the official candidate’s reply date—May 1—and no school should be bending the rules to make you feel pressure to commit earlier.

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