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I have applied to and been offered admissions to a masters program in a U.S. university, but I'm still waiting to hear back from some other places. The deadline to accept is before the 4/15 national deadline for funded graduate programs (as the program I've been accepted to is not funded).

I've expressed my situation and my concerns, and my intent to enroll in the program unless I am offered admission to a funded program. However, the admissions staff claims that what I'm suggesting (withdrawing my acceptance at a later date) is unethical, and that I must commit to or decline the offer from their program by their deadline. There were also unwilling to give an extension.

While I understand that it's not good to cancel on anyone in any case, I feel that I am not acting unethically this way, and that actually they're acting unethically on their part! If I understand correctly, they likely do have a waitlist of some kind and still can offer my place to another students even if I withdraw. However, if I decline their offer, there is no way for me to change my mind!

So, is it ethical to make students make a decision before they've even heard back from all places they have applied to? If the admissions staff are not willing to change their mind, what can I do besides withdrawing from their acceptance at a later date anyway?

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    Ethics aside, there may be financial complications for you if accept the offer of admission and then decline. In particular, you may have to pay a deposit upon accepting admission into the program or you may have to enter into an agreement under which you could be billed later for tuition even if you withdrew before the start of classes. You should very carefully read the acceptance letter to look for such issues. – Brian Borchers Apr 1 '18 at 0:41
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    Just for perspective, I'd note that on the regular job market, you get an offer and a (short) deadline to take it or leave it. You wouldn't expect a prospective employer to help make sure you have the chance to consider every other possible opportunity; indeed, it's likely better for the employer if you don't. Nobody bats an eye at this. – Nate Eldredge Apr 1 '18 at 0:47
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    Have you communicated your deadline conflict with the funded program? At this point, at least a few of their admission offers have been declined; they may be willing to either offer you admission now, or let you know that your chances are slim. – JeffE Apr 1 '18 at 1:45
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    I am always confused about this "ethical" in such questions. Administration runs via (published and ideally logically consistent) laws and then rules (based on the laws). There is no space for ethical considerations in administrative issues. – Rudi_Birnbaum Apr 1 '18 at 9:44
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    @R_Berger There is ample space for ethical consideration in setting up the rules/policies. In particular, at least in the US, the people who set policy about admission deadlines are faculty. (Also: laws can require unethical behavior.) – JeffE Apr 1 '18 at 13:27
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The April 15 Resolution technically applies only to offers of financial support, not to offers of admission. There’s no clear-cut rule saying a school can’t require an early answer for admissions, saying it’s unethical to do so is a difficult claim to make. To my mind, it’s definitely poor form and suggests that the program is either (a) quite prestigious and doesn’t need to worry too much about yield or (b) rather noncompetitive and desperate for enrollees, but they’re risking rejections as well with the hardline approach they’re taking. (Funny how extreme cases in different directions can take the same approach!)

However, given that the program in question is unfunded, it's completely unreasonable for them to expect you to commit irrevocably to an offer of admission, particularly since they are effectively not committing any additional resources to offer you admission. I would thus feel no moral qualms whatsoever in withdrawing my acceptance if another, funded program were to make an offer before the April 15 deadline.

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    This does not answer the question, which was about the ethics of the school's actions, not the student's actions. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 2 '18 at 8:51
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    @AnonymousPhysicist The very existence of unfunded graduate programs is unethical. – user21264 Apr 2 '18 at 12:43
  • @Magicsowon - That would make an interesting question, if it hasn't been asked yet. – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 12:48
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    @Magicsowon Perhaps in the US, but that’s certainly not the case in Europe, for instance. – aeismail Apr 2 '18 at 17:15
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I disagree. I completed my masters by paying my own tuition while I took 1 class a semester because I worked full-time at a well-paid job. I was probably helping to fund other grad-students who had a much higher need for that support. – Kelly S. French Apr 2 '18 at 18:23
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Ethical for them to have this deadline. Also ethical for you to cancel the acceptance of an unsupported position if you later get an offer for a supported position elsewhere. Doing this would burn bridges only between you and the admissions folks (not professors) but keep in mind they have backup students waitlisted to account for cancellations.

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    ... or at least they say they do.... – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 1:03
  • @aparente001 My medical school even kept the wait list active after classes started, and when we had one person drop out within the first 24 hours of the start of the semester they filled that spot by the end of the week with the person who became our class president. I'm sure other graduate schools have similar contingency plans since the loss of even one student can be a significant financial hit to the school, but this financial justification raises numerous other ethical issues. – RudyB Apr 2 '18 at 10:01
  • @RudyB - I'm not following. Are you talking about numerous other ethical issues in the case of a coordinated decision deadline? Or in the uncoordinated case, which OP is facing? Or in the case of the example of your medical school which invited a back-up person on Day 2 of the semester? // I'll explain my comment: I've noticed that sometimes the most aggressive behavior is just a front. – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 12:45
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    I'm not even sure this would burn bridges, given the reason for cancellation. – einpoklum Apr 2 '18 at 23:10
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I have another perspective on this. They are well aware of what they are asking for and the implications for the students. In fact it seems obvious that they are deliberatly forcing an early decision for that very reason. My question then becomes, if they are acting this way now how will they act after the students have enrolled? Is that really a school that seems like they are putting the quality of the education first or are they more likely to squeeze as much money from you as possible? If you have to ask if your prospective school behaves ethically at the first contact I would be very sceptical to their entire business. Granted, I'm from a country where all education are free so YMMV.

  • Interesting point, sbi. Welcome to the site! – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 1:04
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    Yes, I agree that this sounds like the program is coercive. The other possibility is that this program rarely has people applying to both their program and funded programs, which would signal it is perhaps of different quality than expected. (Or this is just how they've always done it and they still get enough students enrolling that no one has bothered to change it.) – cactus_pardner Apr 2 '18 at 1:37
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    To your surprise perhaps, the program in question is pretty famous & prestigious in my field (although, having asked this question, I would rather not reveal what my field is). – confused-grad-student Apr 2 '18 at 2:34
  • Hmm... At top universities, Masters programs are often treated like cash cows, I believe. They often provide revenue that helps fund doctoral programs. And I doubt a faculty member would hold it against you that you did something rational for your academic career. – cactus_pardner Apr 2 '18 at 15:59
  • This does not answer the question, which was about whether the school's actions are ethical, not whether it is advisable to enroll in their program or general advice about what the poster should do. – D.W. Apr 2 '18 at 23:22
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I concur with the other answers that for an unfunded program there is no ethical issue for you withdrawing if you obtain a funded position, although you will definitely burn bridges as noted. However, there may be complicating circumstances.

In my case, I applied to schools A, B, and C. All three were a part of the same university system but different locations and aside from the overarching administrative structure the schools considered themselves relatively independent of each other. My first choice was school A. I interviewed at all three and first received an acceptance from school C, my last choice. I had seven days to respond, and accepting their offer of admission would automatically withdraw my applications at schools A and B. Within that time period I received an acceptance from school B and an offer of a small scholarship from the overarching university, transferable to any of the schools to which I had applied. I politely declined school C, but again I had only seven days to accept or reject school B's offer. As before, accepting the offer would have withdrawn my application to school A, my first choice. In the end, I declined school B also, prior to receiving an acceptance from school A, but I definitely do not recommend that strategy without thorough analysis of the risks.

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    I'm not sure how your second paragraph is relevant to the question. – Kat Apr 1 '18 at 22:38
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    It is relevant if the person is applying to multiple schools within one state university system. I'm just trying to illustrate that the strategy of accepting your first offer may limit your ability to gain admission to your preferred program. – RudyB Apr 2 '18 at 1:21
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    This does not answer the question, which was about the ethics of the school's actions, not the student's actions. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 2 '18 at 8:52
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    I am not saying that my answer is the answer to the question, but I am saying that it is relevant to consider the student's perspective in different circumstances, that actions by the school may severely limit future choices by the prospective student. I gambled, won, and earned my doctoral degree, but there was a possibility that I would have proverbially shot myself in the foot by my actions. You have the ability to agree with me and upvote "this answer is useful" or disagree and downvote "this answer is not useful". – RudyB Apr 2 '18 at 9:53
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    @RudyB - Actually, OP's question appears to be whether the school is behaving ethically. Many answers got sucked into a related but unasked question of what would be the ethical thing for OP to do.... – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 12:41
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There are no rules or standards, so they can set their deadlines however they like.

However, they cannot tell you that accepting and then withdrawing is unethical---the lack of established rules applies the same way. This is especially true if, as I suspect, they are discouraging that behavior for their own convenience.

If that statement was driven primarily by their own interests, it is disingenuous or deceitful---and therefore unethical.

So, overall, I would say that the deadline itself is not a problem, but they crossed the line when they insisted that you cannot withdraw.

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I have nothing to add to the ethical discussion of other commentators. However, if you want to get a better understanding of why these short-deadlines occur, and the 'game theory' behind them, it is worth reading some of the works of the mathematical-economist Prof Alvin Roth. He has written a book about this, and there is also a video of him talking about the subject.

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TL;DR: "What else can you do...?" Ask admissions officers at schools you're waiting on so you might get more information. There may also be value in asking faculty you know well.

I make the assumption that faculty at that masters program would have little power/incentive to change the commitment deadline for the OP in this case; any comments with evidence for or against this assumption would be useful.


You have two pressing questions: is what they are doing ethical, and what can you do? (I now address the ethical question at the end.)

Since that program does not want to budge, you could politely inquire of one of the programs you are waiting to hear from. If you explain this situation, saying that you take a commitment to a school seriously, they may be able to address whether you still have a reasonable chance of admission to their school this year and/or whether you are likely to hear a decision by the masters program's deadline.

Because of the April 15 Resolution, the other admissions offices are probably not bombarded with these questions (I assume). An administrator would probably feel free to say that they cannot answer the question if they do not want to or cannot answer. This approach is unlikely to yield a definitive answer unless there is a yes or a no they are about to send out, but it might give you more information before you send a deposit.

If you have a good relationship with a faculty contact at a school you're waiting to hear from (e.g. a recommender or someone you have extensively talked with about potentially working with them), you could explain the situation and ask if they have any advice. You may get no response (faculty are busy), generic advice (such as you're getting on this site), or advice with inside info ("Well, you're near the top of our list..." or "This was a strong class of applicants this year, so it would take a lot of luck for this to happen..." or "We're really not sure yet what our class will look like, and we don't usually know further until much closer to April 15.").

Unless you have an extremely good relationship with a faculty contact at this unfunded masters program (for instance, they were your undergrad advisor as well), it would probably do little good to ask advice of a faculty member there. You'd be questioning your commitment to their program (which would not be a great way to start a relationship with someone there if you do attend). Faculty may have little control over the present workings of the administrative process, and/or changing the rules for you might set a precedent that harms their program.


Ethics:

I believe I'm in agreement with the other posters on what your course of action should be, though everyone phrases it slightly differently. If you do not have all your information, it is OK to accept the offer but back out later. It's within the school's rights to demand whatever they want, as they are not bound by the agreement for funded graduate programs, but that their demands are somewhat coercive toward someone in your position and that it would be best (though beyond what is ethically required of them) to give you more time. (Especially so because they did not make this timing conflict clear when you applied.) Given the existence of a deposit payment, you are not obligated to remain enrolled if a far more beneficial offer comes along: they have made this a financial obligation on top of/rather than one of honor. (In the U.S. mortgage crisis, the people who were worst off were those who felt morally obligated to continue payments on their "underwater" mortgages, while more financially savvy people cut their losses and walked away.)

protected by StrongBad Apr 3 '18 at 0:33

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