Admissions

Examining Enrollment Ethics

With about a week to go here in February of 2018, high school seniors await college verdicts. Some of you fortunate seniors have already made your college enrollment decisions, thanks to the Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) process. Knowing where you'll be going at this point in high school is comforting.

Other college-bound seniors are in the wait-and-see mode. They have either put all their eggs in the Regular Decision (RD) basket or have used the EA option, been accepted, and are waiting for the results of their RD applications to come through in the coming weeks. Naturally, being accepted EA in December doesn't bind an applicant like ED does. EA acceptees have until May 1 to make their enrollment decisions, just like the RD crowd.


If you were accepted EA and are holding out for your RD results, you are using a form of strategizing, hoping for the best possible set of circumstances, perhaps the most important of which is financial aid. "Who's going to give me the best aid offer?" is what's on your (and your family's) mind. This is a sound strategy, obviously.

 

What I would like to discuss today, though, is enrollment strategy from a gambler's perspective. You may be faced with a situation that requires hard decisions on your part, some of which may tempt you to break some rules. In other words, you may have to gamble with your enrollment decision and its associated actions.

What do I mean by talking about gambling when it comes to making a decision about where you will go to college? Well, it all boils down to what some students do to secure a seat in a favored college. These actions may fall under the heading of "Hedging My Bet." It's a calculated (and somewhat risky and expensive) approach to getting into college. Let's get specific.

A relatively recent development within the college admissions arena is a strategy known as "double depositing." Simply put, this is where an applicant (sometimes under the influence of family members) cannot or will not make one enrollment decision by May 1. So, in order to hedge his or her bet, s/he will make an enrollment deposit at more than one college, thus delaying the need to make the ultimate decision of where to attend. Of course, making more than one enrollment deposit means that when that final decision is made, the accepted applicant will lose the other deposit since refundable deposits have not yet become mainstream.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about double depositing. In a related vein, there has also been a lot of talk lately about colleges pressuring accepted applicants to make their enrollment deposits before the traditional May 1 deadline. Sometimes the need for a pre-May 1 deposit comes from the need to confirm on-campus housing. Skeptics, though, think that trying to get early deposits is just one way for colleges to firm up incoming class numbers and demographics.

 

Over the years, in studying and analyzing the various approaches to executing the college process, I have found double depositing one of the more interesting topics. I've done the requisite research and discussed it with those in the know. College Confidential Senior Advisor, Sally Rubenstone, with whom I have a lot of college-related discussions, has some pertinent thoughts (and questions) about this and I'd like to share them again for those of you who are in the queue currently, awaiting your RD decisions.

Her perspective may be of value to you. She notes:

Over the eons, when parents and students insisted that a double deposit was necessary due to some sort of extenuating circumstance, I always adamantly warned them away from this and attempted to offer an ethical solution to each dilemma on a case-by-case basis … one that did not include committing to more than one college concurrently.

BUT … increasingly, I am hearing tales from families (mostly through my College Confidential “Ask the Dean” column) of colleges that are putting pressure on students to submit a deposit months before May 1. Although the colleges do explain (some clearly, some not so clearly) that the deposit is fully refundable up to May 1, the families are also being told something like, “We will fill our class on a first-come-first-serve basis as we have a finite number of spots.  Once we are at capacity, admission acceptance is moot without the refundable deposit.

The parents and students who are writing to me are stressed out because they have received two or more of these threat-laden acceptances but are still waiting for additional acceptances and, above all, for financial aid and scholarship information (from these schools, from other schools, and from outside organizations). They cannot possibly commit to any college until they know about costs. (In one case, there is a significant outside scholarship pending that will have a major impact on the child’s choice of college, so the family can’t put pressure on the colleges themselves to provide a finalized aid package. The family should get this scholarship news in March.)

 

So, here are my questions:

1. Are colleges that say, “We will fill our class on a first-come-first-serve basis as we have a finite number of spots. Once we are at capacity, admission acceptance is moot without the refundable deposit” in violation of the Candidates Reply Date agreement or does the “refundable” deposit give them an Invisibility Cloak when it comes to rules (and ethics) violations?  

2. If colleges are taking this approach, shouldn’t families who receive two or more of such warnings be able to ethically send a “refundable” deposit to more than one college prior to May 1, as long as all but one deposit will be withdrawn by May 1?

That makes sense, agreed? But what about the views of an actual college admissions insider?

Here are some excerpts from comments made a while ago by Michael Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University in California, on the practice of double depositing:

... [Spring] 'tis the season of double depositing, the act of placing deposits at more than one institution, or simply watching the May 1 deposit deadline pass without informing colleges of one’s intentions.

There are parents and even some college counselors who feel that, given the stress of the college search and cost of college today, it’s acceptable to send deposits to two different schools and decide later which one to attend.

 

I can say with certainty that my colleagues across the country feel this practice undermines the integrity of the admissions process, and that it violates the ethical standards set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Here are some reasons why college admissions professionals strongly discourage double depositing: 

* My institution usually has a critical mass of deposits by mid-April. (We just sent out acceptance letters in late March.) Some send in a deposit, but also send one to another college, essentially holding a seat they may not occupy. Double depositing gums up the works on wait lists. We have to send reminders of the May 1 deadline.

* The point of double depositing or waiting until after the May 1 deadline to decide to enroll escapes me. The entire college search process has been lengthened to months, even years. What more does a student or his or her family think they will learn at this late stage? One thing I know will not happen — financial aid awards are set by then. The pot doesn’t get sweetened at the last minute ...

... Speaking for my own institution, I would suggest to any applicants that if they are considering double depositing to please just enroll elsewhere. We have enough serious, committed students and parents who have made their decision and stuck with it.

So, from these expert-based comments, we can see two sides of the enrollment deposit issue: (1) accepted applicants' and families' need for more time to make a final decision and (2) colleges trying to firm up their incoming class details. Where should our sympathy lie, on the side of students and families or favoring those institutions of higher education?

To get a further real-world perspective on this, here two comments from a past College Confidential discussion forum thread entitled Enrollment Deposit Confusion:

- ... All right, so I submitted an EA CommonApp the other day, and I checked the box that said "I affirm that I will send an enrollment deposit (or equivalent) to only one institution; sending multiple deposits (or equivalent) may result in the withdrawal of my admission offers from all institutions. [Note: students may send an enrollment deposit (or equivalent) to a second institution where they have been admitted from the waitlist, provided that they inform the first institution that they will no longer be enrolling.]"

Now I'm slightly confused. To register for housing for Bama, they make their students submit a non-refundable enrollment deposit first (for some reason I just cannot comprehend haha. Anyone know why Bama makes you do this? No other schools I'm applying to require enrollment first.). Bama is one of my top-schools, and I would absolutely be thrilled to attend if I'm not accepted to my top choice. Because of this, I wanted to submit the deposit in case I decide on Bama.

 

However, because I agreed to that on the Common App, am I no longer allowed to apply for housing for Bama since they require the enrollment deposit before I can apply for housing? ...

- The reason for applying EA, ED or SCEA are to try and get an early decision from a school that you more than likely will attend should you be accepted. You indicated you checked the box for EA which is the LEAST strict as compared to ED or SCEA which are more of a binding contract. While following the letter of the rules should mean that you should NOT apply and pay deposits at UA because you still really hope to attend your 1st choice school which is the reason you chose EA, I doubt that school would ever know, especially since EA is non-binding and allows virtually any way / reason out of accepting their admission offer you can imagine. Therefore, you may be safe paying both the UA deposits as long as you know that you will forfeit some of that money should you choose to go to your 1st choice school in the end. You're trying to protect the "best of both worlds" view ... utilizing EA to perhaps have a better chance at 1st choice, but still lock in the best possible slot at UA (your safety). I'm not an admissions expert, but this is how I read the situation.

This is a fairly long thread with many good observations. I encourage you to read through it. They will help you see what families are encountering these days when it comes to enrollment deposits.

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You may have thought that the college admissions process is a fairly straightforward task. Yes, it can be, but it can also be complex and stressful. It can force you into making hard choices under the pressure of deadlines. My experience has shown that decisions made under deadline pressure are sometimes bad decisions. That's why I wanted to bring out the information above. It bears repeating.

In the world of college admissions, ethics cut both ways. Two groups many times do "battle" this time of year. Applicants search for and employ strategies in an attempt to gain the best possible leverage for their chances and outcomes. Colleges devise methods to serve their institutional advantages while perhaps promoting those methods in a positive light. It can be a competition of wits.

I sincerely hope that your end-game outcomes will be completely positive and without the need for gamesmanship. The doors of opportunity will be opening for you soon.

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Check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.