Can a College Ask for My Deposit Before May 1?

Question: I received my first college acceptance during the first week of February and was told by the school that I must send a deposit within 30 days. That freaks me out because thought I had until May 1 to decide. My guidance counselor says that the deposit is just to make sure I get housing and that it’s refundable if I change my mind by May 1. I really don’t think I will attend this college (it’s my safety school), but I don’t want to lose out on housing, just in case. Should I send the deposit even though I probably won’t go there? Is the college allowed to ask me for one?

This is a confusing issue that raises hackles throughout the admissions world. Yes, technically, colleges that subscribe to the May 1 candidates’ reply date can, nonetheless, demand a deposit, as long as they give it back, should the student withdraw by May 1.

Colleges often claim to ask for your money early because of a possible housing crunch. They say they want to get an advance sense of how many freshman dorm rooms they will need. But, frankly, I think colleges probably do this to try to find out how serious their applicants really are and to weed out the ones who will definitely not enroll and who know this early on. These days, many students apply to an uber-long list of colleges and often have more than one safety school. Applicants who get good news quickly from several colleges are likely to eliminate one or more of them right away. Therefore, if a college receives a deposit from you well before May 1–even a fully refundable one–it sends a little message that suggests, “This school is still in the running.” Even if the college admission folks can’t completely count on the fact that you’ll show up in September, this helps give them at least a rough estimate of who might come and who definitely won’t.

Frankly, I’m not a big fan of this approach. When students get this sort of requirement from more than one college, they may be financially pinched to submit multiple deposits while they decide on a final choice. And even those who can afford several deposits still have the hassle of sending them and then retrieving the refunds, once they’ve reached their May 1 verdict.

But, at least for now, the colleges aren’t listening to me, and they are allowed to demand your money, as long as they give it back if you say, “Never mind” before May 1. I suspect that, like Staples, and AT&T and all those other folks who offer “rebates” on their assorted products, the colleges, too, are probably hoping that, in the excitement of making your final college choices, you may forget to reclaim your dough. 😉