May 1 – commitment and tantrums

Like most admissions deans and directors, I spent most of the day yesterday, the May 1st national enrollment confirmation day, tracking student commitments to my institution. For many years, May 1 marked the end of admissions officers’ anxiety; at that point, we pretty much knew who was (and who wasn’t) coming to our colleges and universities.

Not any more.

Admissions e-lists are filled this time of year talking about “melt,” which describes the number of students who commit to our institutions but never enroll. That number used to fairly small and consisted largely of students who had major changes in their circumstances, mostly health- or wealth-related.  Each year, however, more students are willing to commit to more than one institution. Admissions officers whine about this, calling such students unethical, and rely on guidance counselors to police the issue.

Around this time last year I suggested that colleges and universities accept, and even embrace, this “double-depositing” and pretty much got flamed by a number of colleagues for such a shocking concept. Here’s a sample of what I wrote:

“I really like when the argument gets all fired up as a debate on ‘ethics’. It seems particularly charming that the same universities that are sending massively manipulative marketing materials (oh how I love alliteration!)…then call students unethical for not being able to make up their minds by May 1 … it isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision…You can place deposits on any number of items (say a car, just to draw the comparison most likely to inflame my colleagues), and decide NOT to make that purchase without being in the least unethical, can’t you?”

I was right, this unhinged people, although not one actually gave any reasonable argument for saying it’s about ethics.  Still, I recognize that simply accepting multiple deposits from students is unlikely to be embraced. So instead, a few new suggestions:

To make this all more open and honest, here’s some radical thinking. Perhaps the May 1 deposit deadline could go be a date for half-refunds. June 1 could become the new final deposit date. Between the dates, colleges and universities can openly do all the things they try to do on the sly now – renegotiate aid packages without academic or fiscal justification; promise better housing/orientation/classes to those who commit sooner; threaten to kick, scream, and hold their breath if the applicant goes elsewhere, etc.

Admissions officers will, I’m sure, cry that June 1 is far too late and blah blah blah about all the ways this would become the wild west instead of a carefully considered process of helping students find best “fit.” New flash – melt is growing because of OUR practices more than any change in ethics among students and families. If we can’t clean up those practices (and recent history says we either can’t or won’t) then let’s at least try to make the process more transparent.

At the same time, and I know how unpopular this will be, colleges and universities should significantly raise deposit fees (many have been at the same level for over a decade while tuition has skyrocketed). With deposits being such a small percentage of tuition, some families see an economic percentage in double depositing.  Remember, these deposits get used toward tuition and housing bills, so the only students who would pay more as a result are those that double deposit. 

In the meantime, my thanks and congratulations to all of you who decided to commit to Mason. You made the right decision. Now you’d better stick to it, because MY tantrums are REALLY loud.

Be seeing you.


3 Responses

  1. I take issue with your statement, “the only students who would pay more as a result are those that double deposit.” One downside to raising deposits is unduly penalizing applicants admitted through waitlists to other colleges. Having lost a $600 deposit last year, I am painfully aware of this issue.

    As your post implies, college admissions shouldn’t always be a one-sided coin. If colleges use waitlist admissions to protect themselves from admitting too many applicants, they shouldn’t penalize those who play the waitlist game.

    One obvious solution to the waitlist problem is to refund deposits under those circumstances. But this solution was not in effect in my daughter’s case. Hard-nosed tactics like this make my blood boil and make college admissions adversarial. Admissions offices need to take the lead in raising the bar in ethics. Many (but probably not all) applicants and their parents will follow that lead.

    By the way, I don’t think a $600 deposit is too low.

    • An EXCELLENT point, and one rarely addressed by college and university admission officers – why should students be expected to lose their deposit if they are on a waitlist elsewhere, and how can that be ethical if double depositing isn’t!? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have students/families be able to honestly say, “Hey, I like your school, but I’m a on a waitlist at a school I might like better and I REALLY don’t want to throw away $600!”??

      As for the amount of the deposit, I have mixed feelings. From the perspective that any amount provided counts towards tuition/fees at the school students attend, it would seem that a higher amount would discourage double depositers. At the same time, I agree that any system that disadvantages a student economically for making sound educational decisions is, at its heart, broken, and increasing the amount in that environment seems at best problematic.

  2. Let’s say it IS an ethics problem that students double-deposit and then “melt away” from one or more colleges. Is it also an ethics problem when a school keeps the “melted away” student’s deposit money? (you alluded to this in your original post)

    I bet no school is volunteering to give the money back (and I’m not suggesting they should).

    Is it any different than a prospective home buyer who puts down an “earnest money” deposit on a house, and then backs out of the sale (for whatever reason)? The home seller doesn’t refund the buyer’s deposit , which is typically several thousand dollars. No one blinks an eye when that takes place.

    Further, I don’t know if June 1 as a “final” deposit date would help tremendously. It might just have the same effect, pushing-back the timeline for “real” decisions.

    All that said, I applaud your creative thinking and willingness to confront and challenge this situation. Most schools would rather just whine about the problem and point the finger at prospective students.

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