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I applied to CS masters programs in the US, and I have recently received an offer from a top-15 institution.

The program is unfunded, and I want to wait for decisions from other programs I applied to, some of which are funded.

However, the institution is telling me that they are only giving me one week to make my decision (I must respond by 3/13) and that I must deposit a non-refundable $5000 by that date in order to secure my admission.

As the school is not giving out a funded offer, they need not abide by the April 15th resolution.

Seems somewhat unethical to me, but in any case, I have some questions:

a) How common is this? For MS programs to force you to deposit huge sums of money within one week of the decision?

b) If I accept this offer, would it somehow notify other schools that I have accepted this offer, and make other schools less likely to give me an offer?

c) Let's say I decide to shell out my 5k -- would it be unethical for me to withdraw at a later date if I get into another school? They're not investing anything into me, and they get free money.

d) If I go the route of c), with whom would I be burning bridges with? Only the admissions folk?

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    I would definitely try to speak to someone directly at the school about this. It seems fishy and I would worry about it being a scam. Perhaps someone has pilfered their list of applicants? – Dawn Mar 4 at 14:11
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    @Dawn Well, it's in their official acceptance letter, and also reflected on their portal, so I'd be surprised if it were the case. – userff Mar 4 at 14:12
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    @Flyto That was my thought, too, but then I quickly googled "MS 5000 deposit" and found several institutions, including Columbia, with deposits that high. Yikes. – Bryan Krause Mar 4 at 15:47
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    @Flyto: The fact that it is not well-known is precisely why they are getting away with it. In my opinion. – user21820 Mar 5 at 4:09
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    @Flyto With, admittedly, no specific knowledge of the admission system: One reason could be to make their admissions process manageable. They know that everybody has a umber of applications at different places running in parallel, so it is hard to tell how many of the admitted people will actually join; so they must "overbook" like an airplane, just more, and with greater variance. Without an upfront payment this gamble will result in either too many or too few accepted. The $5000 change that: The people who payed upfront are pretty committed, leading to a more predictable process. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 7:58
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I do not think the quick monetary outlay is common. You seem to be leaning toward acceptance and then backing out if you get a better offer. This may be possible because, in my experience, there is not a centralized system which lets other schools know you have accepted (although perhaps that could be different for Masters programs where you are using federal aid, not sure).

However, I would encourage you to take an alternative approach. Call them and explain that you are waiting to hear from other programs, some of which would be funded. Ask for a deadline extension until the April 15th deadline. In the past I was successful with this strategy, and I know students in our program have also successfully received extensions.

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    I think some schools make the request because they know some people will be complacent. Earlier money is better than late money. Even "better" if they decide to go somewhere else because they just got $5k for free. – Nelson Mar 5 at 7:38
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    Highly unlikely. Ivy League schools don't care about leaving the door open for a tire kicker. If you want in, unfunded, it's a $50k/yr commitment and if you can't throw down $5k to secure your spot, they have plenty of other rich folks waiting in the wings to take the spot instead. Unfunded applications are very different from funded ones. Unfunded means they don't think you're worth funding, but if you really want a degree with their name on it you can happily cough up the cash... and they will happily take it. – J... Mar 5 at 17:29
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I just want to answer just this part of the question:

c) Let's say I decide to shell out my 5k -- would it be unethical for me to withdraw at a later date if I get into another school? They're not investing anything into me, and they get free money.

if anything, it is (in my opinion) unethical for them to charge this much as a non-refundable deposit. Because of this, if you do spend the deposit I don't think you would be burning any bridges if you rescinded. In fact you just gave them 5k, I don't know how you could dislike someone after that....

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    Does anyone know the reason an Ivy league school would need to charge this amount? who does the money go to? don't most universities not even need to charge tuition from alumni donations? – sntrenter Mar 4 at 20:28
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    in general, the purpose of non-refundable deposits isn't to make money, but to discourage people from accepting, but then backing out. Maybe they charge so much because they're an ivy, and expect their applicants to be rich, and only fazed by a large deposit. (I don't know if that's a very true expectation though?) – mbrig Mar 4 at 22:29
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    @sntrenter A "top" school is going to have lots of applicants. If a student waits a month and backs out, many of the school's next-best applicants will have already been poached by other schools, leaving a much weaker pool to select from. A large deposit scares off students that are likely to back out, and helps ensure that the school pulls in as many top students as possible. A more affordable deposit wouldn't be a sufficient deterrent for many applicants. OP seems to want to do exactly what the school is trying to avoid happening. – bta Mar 4 at 23:05
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    @mbrig Exactly, see my comment under the OP. I also wanted to say spontaneously "$5000 is not a large deposit" -- unless you are fairly poor. Considering that: As a side effect they will have fewer applicants with money problems without officially screening by wealth (one of the eternal conflicts the admissions office operates under). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 5 at 8:02
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a) Increasing common in oversubscribed programs,

b) Very unlikely. I can’t imagine schools sharing admission details. Moreover, if baseball and basketball owners cannot collude, universities cannot either.

c) It is never unethical to accept another offer. The University might not like it but if they want you it’s up to them to make a better offer. Nobody can prevent you from changing your mind, and if a university doesn’t agree with this do you really want to go there?

d) If you choose to walk away, you are burning your bridges with them, not the other way around. See second sentence of c) above.

Although the letter of the April 15th resolution does not apply, it is well worth reading it to understand its spirit.. This passage is particularly relevant:

In those instances in which a student accepts an offer before April 15 and subsequently desires to withdraw that acceptance, the student may submit in writing a resignation of the appointment at any time through April 15. However, an acceptance given or left in force after April 15 commits the student not to accept another offer without first obtaining a written release from the institution to which a commitment has been made.

To me this reinforces my point in c). What is unethical is to keep two offers in play at the same time, i.e. not promptly advising university A that you have accepted the offer of university B.

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From the Schools perspective its just a business decision. They make more offers than they have places for, knowing that on average not all offers will be accepted. Furthermore not all accepted offers will go on to study with the institution.

The philosophy here on the part of the University, is to make offers to students who are willing to pay a $5k reservation fee, so that there is greater certainty that the students "accepted" will enroll. If the student doesn't enroll, collateral has been paid for the unfilled position.

Other Schools dont know if an applicant has made such a downpayment. Nor would they care. As far as they are concerned, the applicant has paid a $5k optional premium with ABC to hold their place.

If you can handle the downside of perhaps losing existing offers, don't pay the reservation. However it never hurts to reach out to the college to see if they are willing to cooperate with your needs.

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    I downvoted. This is not an answer to the question, and I disagree on encouraging the OP to give money away like that, for business reasons. We are talking about education here. – Giuseppe Negro Mar 5 at 16:29
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    I rarely downvote in this network but this answer is just the worst one I have ever read. Having to pay for a master's education is considered barbaric here in Germany; now people demand money for an option on education... Unbelievable. – Henrik Schumacher Mar 5 at 19:05
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    The practice seems to be pretty common in the country where Gust is applying. I would agree that it is not the University's concern whether an applicant is holding out for another acceptance. What the University does want to know, is who will be attending. The deposit helps with this calculation, and lets them decide if they need to extend more offers, or withdraw some in order to meet the enrollment target. – Tyler S. Loeper Mar 5 at 21:47
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    Although I think it is unreasonable to ask for such a deposit and I philosophically disagree with the reasoning of this poster, this does not change the reality that this kind of reasoning is unfortunately not uncommon and that the reasoning is sound (if repulsive). – ZeroTheHero Mar 5 at 23:11
  • @HenrikSchumacher: It's an elite institution where thousands of people want to apply. A lot of people would also consider barbaric to pay the amount of taxes you do pay in Germany. I certainly do. It certainly doesn't seem to be a good reason to downvote NoName's answer. – devoured elysium Mar 7 at 15:12
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Tell them to get lost. It's disgraceful to demand a non-refundable payment of $5000 whilst you are still waiting to hear back from your other applications and are not in a position to make an informed decision. The corporatisation of universities has made them corrupt and it is better to avoid them. Anything you learn in a degree, you can easily teach yourself using books and the internet. You can make it clear that you are self-taught in job applications, because you did not see the wisdom in paying a large sum of money for knowledge that is cheap and easy to obtain. If I was reviewing job applications, I would be more likely to offer a self-taught person an interview than any graduate, on the grounds that they are more resourceful.

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    "Anything you learn in a degree, you can easily teach yourself using books and the internet" -- I doubt this is true across all disciplines, and in my own one (mathematics) this is simply not true at Master's level – Yemon Choi Mar 6 at 21:59
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    Hi Yemon, Thank you for your reply. But in fact I am a mathematician myself, with a master's degree and a PhD. And I stand by my comment. One can teach oneself mathematics, statistics, and computer programming using textbooks, and the internet. I have done this myself. As for experimental disciplines requiring specialist equipment, one can obtain a lot of equipment at reasonable price privately, and design one's own experiments, or verify other's experiments. One would be free from long-winded ethics applications if one worked privately as well. Having said that, I object to animal testing. – Mr Cabbage Mar 6 at 23:04
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    I realise it is ironic to advocate self-teaching when I have degrees. Therefore, I can point out that I seldom attended lectures, and just read books instead, when I was a student. I also got a scholarship for all my degrees, and I would never have considered paying a university to "teach" me what I can teach myself at a tiny fraction of the price. Finally, I did degrees long enough ago that universities were not the corrupt, money obsessed, grade-inflating degree factories that they have become now. I couldn't do a degree at a university nowadays and have self-respect. – Mr Cabbage Mar 6 at 23:12
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    Thanks for the responses/corrections. I admit that it is possible for some people to self-study their way up to that level, and I should not have been so OTT in my original claim, but I do think this is less common than people expect. It does also depend what mathematics you want to teach yourself: linear algebra, I would say you can self-teach; differential geometry, possible but harder; algebraic number theory, that starts to be trickier. (Teaching, where it actually happens as more than lip service, is also about correcting students' misapprehensions) – Yemon Choi Mar 7 at 1:16
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    Thank you for your reply. Yes, I would certainly accept that the ease with which one can teach oneself material in mathematics depends on the level of the material. Also, I do recognise that studying at a university would give someone the opportunity to ask questions from world-leading experts, and that this may be of great benefit in the learning process. However, I have also found that, nowadays, one can email an expert with a difficult question and they will often reply with helpful information. After all, academics can find it flattering that someone is taking an interest in their work. – Mr Cabbage Mar 7 at 9:16

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