A post on the NACAC Exchange a week or so ago caught my eye (of course, they all do).  An independent counselor asked a question about the housing application fees required by many large universities (in this case the University of Florida). 

Two of her clients have just been accepted to Florida.  Immediately after applying they were contacted by the university and urged to submit a non-refundable $25 housing deposit in order to reserve the possibility of on-campus housing, with their place in the housing selection queue determined by the date the deposit was paid. They did so, and are now being asked to pay a non-refundable $175 “Advance Rent Payment” by March 11 to complete the housing contract. Failure to submit by the deadline could result in the students losing their place on the room selection list, and late payment will put them at the bottom of the list.  The families want to wait for their other admissions decisions before deciding whether to enroll in Florida and are wondering how the University can ask for a housing deposit so far in advance of the May 1 reply date. 

The query only received a couple of responses, but they captured both ends of the spectrum of opinion on this issue.  A friend of mine suggested that the university be reported to the regional Admission Practices Committee for possible violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), while another friend responded that this is standard operating procedure at large universities and that they have a legitimate need to manage the complex process of assigning housing.

It can certainly be argued that this is neither an ethical issue nor an issue related to college admissions, but readers of this blog know that has never stopped us from weighing in, so let’s try to sort through the issues.

Does the SPGP apply to housing deposits?  I certainly remember the issue coming up during my time as a NACAC Assembly Delegate.  The May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is one of the ethical foundations of our profession, a convention designed to protect the ethical principle that students should be able to make a college choice freely and without coercion, knowing all of their options.  But do colleges have a need and a right to ask for commitments and deposits prior to May 1 for things like scholarships and housing?  On one hand, membership in NACAC is institutional, such that a college or university, not just the admissions office, agrees to abide by the SPGP.  On the other, the reality is that in large institutions, things like housing fall outside the purview of the admissions office, and the housing process is sufficiently complex that it may not match up with the admissions calendar.

ACUHO (Association of College and University Housing Officers) does not address deadlines and fees in its code of ethics, other than stating that housing fees should not be used as a revenue stream for parts of the university unrelated to housing (it is presumably okay for a university housing office to use fees to help balance its own budget).  The two documents have a markedly different tone, with the ACUHO document broad and general and the SPGP specific and prescriptive.  The difference is predicated on the fact that NACAC is one of only a few professional associations that attempt to enforce ethical standards.  As a result the SPGP tends to be amended in response to specific practices that push the boundaries of accepted ethical professional practice.  

There are two references to housing in the SPGP, both Mandatory Practices.  Section II. A. 1 mentions housing in conjunction with a requirement for transparency in requirements, deadlines, and refund procedures.  I think the University of Florida is clearly in compliance on this point.

The other mention is in Section II. B. 5, which requires post-secondary members to “work with their institutions’ senior administrative offices to ensure that financial aid and housing options are not used to manipulate commitments prior to May 1.”  That speaks to the heart of the concerns raised by the independent counselor and her clients.  Are the housing deposits coercive, either directly or indirectly?

The $25 fee seems perfectly reasonable, both in timing and amount.  It is akin to the admissions application fee and serves dual purposes, covering the cost of processing the application for housing and also establishing an order for housing selection.

The $175 “Advance Rent Payment” is more problematic, on several fronts.  Both the more substantial financial commitment and the early (pre-May 1) deadline could (emphasis on could) be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate an enrollment commitment, as does the threat to lose one’s place in the housing queue if the payment is late.  Let me be clear that I am not accusing the university of doing anything deliberately manipulative.  For all I know there may be good reasons why the housing office needs to know who actually plans to enroll in university housing prior to May 1.  I also know that it is not unheard of for bureaucrats to establish deadlines and procedures that meet their needs without being aware of how they inconvenience others.  I’m sure there are housing administrators with no clue that a student might apply to more than one college. 

What is most questionable ethically is the non-refundable nature of the deposit.  That is not equally true for all segments of the applicant pool.  If Florida is my first choice and there’s no question that I will enroll (which may be true for a large number of applicants at any flagship university), neither the deadline nor the fee is unreasonable.  If I voluntarily make an enrollment deposit to an institution in February or March, I don’t have a right to expect a refund if I change my mind before May 1 (if I make early deposit because I have been led to believe that will give me a better housing option, that’s different).

For other segments the deadline and non-refundable nature of the fee are indefensible.  The fee is to complete the housing contract, and the use of the word “contract” implies that the student will receive housing.  If I pay the fee and then decide not to attend Florida, I should receive a refund because I am not receiving the benefit.  The same is true if the university is unable to offer me housing.  If I decide to attend Florida and pay the fee but later decide I want to live off-campus, it’s not as clear that the university has any obligation.

The University of Florida housing office does have an appeal process in place for students who want to be released from the housing contract they have signed.  In the case of those who have been asked to pay the $175 fee prior to May 1 to complete the housing contract, they shouldn’t have to ask.  If the earlier deadline is necessary, then the fee should be refunded to any student who doesn’t end up attending the university.