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When Colleges Dangle Money to Lure Students Who Ignored Them

In the minds of parents and teenagers going through the college application process, May 1 is a magic date. At that point, you’ll have made your decision, sent in a deposit, bought a sticker for your car window and posted your choice on social media.

This year, however, scores of teenagers had something unexpected happen next: During the first week in May, they received text messages or emails from schools that had accepted them but had not heard back. The messages all hinted at a particular question: Might a little bigger discount prompt you to come here after all?

Hampshire College, Elizabethtown College and Ursinus College all did this sort of outreach in recent weeks, as did Lawrence University — and perhaps many others, though these were the ones I was able to confirm after a week of reporting.

For some students, such a note can be a dream come true if it makes their first-choice college more affordable — even if it means forfeiting a deposit at another school, which typically runs into the hundreds of dollars.

But they raise ethical questions in the higher education industry, where schools are not supposed to dangle financial offers in front of people who have committed to other institutions. While it’s tempting for liberal arts colleges to be aggressive, given that many people now openly question the value of their degrees, the discounts may seem like flat-out poaching to administrators at schools that have received commitments and deposits from admitted students.

“In just trying to talk about how competitive and cutthroat this business is right now, this has brought it up to another level that I have never seen before,” said James A. Troha, the president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. “May 1, is that even the date anymore?”

In some circumstances, May 1 has not been the date for some time. Many colleges maintain wait lists. If not enough students agree to matriculate, they may draw from that list for months after May 1 without anyone accusing them of playing dirty.

And for all the attention devoted to the most competitive institutions, plenty more have space available throughout the late spring and summer and invite qualified students to give them a look. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, or Nacac, publishes a list each year, and this year’s lineup includes household names like Arizona State, Hofstra, Penn State and Skidmore.

For many families, however, there have been searching discussions about finances all through March and April. Many will appeal their initial financial aid offers in the hopes of getting more grant money. Then they may spend weeks trying to figure out whether they can (or should) pay $50,000 or $150,000 more for four years at a student’s first-choice school.

So it almost certainly comes as a confusing surprise when another round of communication begins out of the blue in early May, after students and their parents thought they had made up their minds.

Ursinus, of Collegeville, Pa., is one college that initiates it, but the people who work there do not relish the prospect. “I don’t think anyone who sits in the seat that I sit in is twiddling their fingers behind the scenes like Mr. Burns from ‘The Simpsons,’ saying, ‘Ha, ha, ha, we get to do this,’” said Dave Tobias, vice president and dean for enrollment management.

Instead, some colleges do it because they have to. Perhaps the number of students who have sent in deposits, multiplied by the amount of money each has agreed to pay after discounts from the financial aid office, does not equal enough to cover the institution’s budget.

Mr. Tobias said Ursinus had hit its numbers by May 1. But it had excess capacity, and, being an institution that believes in the value of its educational product, he said, it wanted to offer seats to more students who might benefit.

In order to make such an offer, schools must follow Nacac’s rules, which state that, generally, members must not “knowingly offer financial aid packages to students committed to attend other institutions, unless the students initiate such inquiries.”

So what’s the definition of “knowingly” here? All of the schools that contact students after May 1 say they do so only with those who have not definitively reported that they are attending another institution.

Still, these are teenagers we’re talking about, and most of them probably just haven’t gotten around to telling schools they’re not coming. And the colleges have to know that most of them have put down deposits elsewhere and thus are indeed “committed,” right?

“I recognize that this is a fine line,” Mr. Tobias said. “It’s something we wrestle with regularly, and I’ll be very honest with you, I don’t think it’s anything that anybody feels good about.”

But there are practical considerations. Mr. Tobias hears often from students who did not place a deposit anywhere by May 1, and he doesn’t have any way of knowing who is who. John Courtmanche, a spokesman for Hampshire, said in a statement that so many students did not respond to its emailed request for a decision by May 1 that it sent two text messages to them on May 2. The second one reminded them how to get in touch with the financial aid office “if they had questions about their aid package.”

At Elizabethtown, a liberal arts school in Elizabethtown, Pa., administrators waited until May 8 to reach out this year and were careful, as other schools said they were, not to make specific financial offers in the first approach or guarantee that they would be able to adjust bills.

This application season, when Elizabethtown made its initial financial aid offers, it wasn’t able to meet 100 percent of every admitted student’s financial needs because it simply didn’t have enough money to go around, said George J. Walter, interim vice president for enrollment management. Given that there was money left in May, however, it made sense to offer it to the right applicants. “If they come back, we can look and say, ‘Here’s someone who we would have loved to have given more to up front,’” he said.

Louis L. Hirsh, who has spent the past two years as chairman of Nacac’s Admission Practices Committee and is a former director of admissions at the University of Delaware, does not believe such outreach violates the letter or spirit of the Nacac rules, as long as the notes say they are only for people who have not yet committed elsewhere and do not contain specific dollar offers.

“What’s the spirit of the thing?” he asked. “The spirit is in how you best serve students, and if you’re giving a kid a chance to attend the school that has been a first choice all along, it’s very hard to see that as unethical.”

Mr. Hirsh acknowledged, however, that Nacac can’t listen in on the ensuing conversations, in which students might bring up how much they were preparing to pay elsewhere. At that point, the schools trying to woo those students are supposed to shut the conversations down, now that they know for certain that the students have, in fact, committed elsewhere.

Mr. Troha, the Juniata president, also worries about the head trip these communications send teenagers on. Not only did some of the students committed to his college receive such notes this year, but so did his daughter, as he explained to The Wall Street Journal this month. (He was too much of a gentleman to identify the schools that sent her notes; I made the list in this column through my own reporting and welcome any additions that you wish to email to me.)

“You come to the May 1 date proud of your choice, and you want to get excited about that, and all of the sudden your life is back in turmoil because someone came at you with more money,” Mr. Troha said.

Debbie Kohl Schwartz, the founder of a service called Road2College and an active presence on an essential Facebook group on paying for college, doesn’t think families should get particularly worked up about these developments, but she does urge them to be more realistic about the system. “These are business tactics,” she said. “Parents and kids approach it like a holier-than-thou process, but colleges approach it more like a business.”

Given that fact, one new strategy seems wise. If colleges reach out only to accepted students who have not yet said they will not be attending, then it makes little sense for students to say that, lest they be excluded from early May outreach and potential offers of further discounts.

As for Mr. Troha, all the questions about what changes these new moves might cause left a bad taste in his mouth, and he pledged not to take part in such dealings. “I just don’t think it’s a path that Juniata is willing to go down, to continue to throw money at families,” he said. “If it is all going to be about the bottom dollar, we are all in a world of hurt, frankly.”