Making a Deposit at Two Colleges at Once

Question: My son was accepted at a number of good schools, some of which are giving him good packages including up to half-tuition scholarships. However, he is having a problem deciding between the offers.

Will the colleges know if we accept and place a deposit at more than one college? In other words, is there some type of clearinghouse where the colleges go to see if their offers were accepted?

Also, my son was wait-listed at two other good schools, so if he accepts one school by May 1, will he be automatically taken off the waitlists? We want to be able to see if the waitlist schools open a spot before we make final decision.

Accepting an offer from two colleges ("double-depositing") is highly unethical. Students and parents are warned not to do it for fear of getting caught and having both acceptances rescinded. Yet there isn't a giant clearinghouse that allows all admission officials to compare lists of enrolling applicants, so some of these warnings go unheeded and with no dire consequences. Even so, “The Dean" advises strongly against double-deposits.

Typically, when a student does get in hot water for committing to more than one college, it's because of a silly snafu (like when a father made out the enrollment deposit check to one college but mailed it to the other!) or, more commonly, when a guidance counselor spills the beans. And after graduation, the guidance counselor must submit a Final School Report to the one college that each student has selected. No counselor (except the very inept ones and maybe the occasional corrupt ones) will send more than a single Final School Report. Double-deposit violations are also sometimes unearthed by financial aid officers who learn that other colleges are procuring federal funds for students whom they thought were theirs.

Waitlists, however, are a different story. If your son is hoping to get good news from two colleges where he has been placed on the waitlist, it's possible that he will hear before May 1 but it's more likely that those colleges won't know if they have a spot for him until after they've heard from all of their admitted students and have determined the deficiencies in the class, which could be a week (or several) after May 1.

Therefore, if your son does want to remain on these lists, he should notify those colleges that he plans to wait as long as necessary. If he is certain that he will attend one of these colleges if admitted, he should be sure to say this very clearly. His name will not be removed from the waitlists unless he asks or until the college notifies him that the list is now “closed" and so he should not expect an affirmative verdict.

Meanwhile, he must deposit somewhere by May 1. Then, if he is eventually accepted off of a waitlist at a college he wants to attend, you will lose any deposit that you already made. (In some hardship cases, the college will return enrollment deposits if a student is taken off a waitlist elsewhere, but that's not standard operating procedure. And some colleges require a written commitment by May but no dough, which is handy when a waitlist school says, “please come!") You can read other advice for waitlisted students in this “Ask the Dean" column.

It is not at all unethical to stay on multiple waitlists or to commit to a college by May 1 and then to say “never mind" after receiving a waitlist offer later. It is, however, wrong to say yes to more than one school on or before May 1.

Colleges will sometimes grant extensions to students who are not ready to commit by May 1. But these special favors are rare and are usually offered only when a financial aid appeal is in progress. (I always caution students who are asking for such extensions to be sure to get them in writing.)

You may hear through the grapevine that the college folks practice enough chicanery of their own to justify the duplicity of double-depositing, but I don't buy it. While it may feel stressful for your son to decide in three weeks, it would be very inconsiderate of him to game the system and let more than one college assume he will enroll while other students are eager to grab his spot at the schools that he won't attend. Therefore, I suggest that he make as many campus visits this month as possible to help him make his final choice. Even if he has visited in the past, often returning in the spring with an “I'm not just window-shopping anymore -- I'm buying" perspective can be helpful. The sooner he makes his decision, the sooner his mind will be at peace ... and his karma intact.

Good luck as this crazy process winds down.