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I have received a really good graduate admission offer from a reputable university in the US but without any funding offer. As I have to accept their admission offer by 15 April and since I haven't yet received offers from some of the universities that I've applied to, so I wanted to know whether it is okay and legal to accept a later offer (e.g., which came after 15 April) with funding, despite having previously accepted an offer (without funding) from a university before 15 April. Thanks.

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    By the way, you should immediately (and I do mean immediately) write to all the programs you haven't heard from and tell them that you got an offer from [Great] University X but that it is without funding. If a top program will take you without funding, then the chance that some other program will take you with funding knowing that seems not too bad. You will feel terrible if a funded offer comes after you accepted an unfunded offer. – Pete L. Clark Apr 11 '15 at 20:47
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    Legal, yes! Ethical, no! It's like the boy who cried wolf... If you say you're committing to doing X, and then change your mind to do Y, you are likely to give the impression that your flaky, immature, or otherwise a "flight risk" and this reputation will likely stick with you in the future. – Paul Apr 11 '15 at 21:13
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    tl;dr: You're asking if it's legal to lie. – Mehrdad Apr 12 '15 at 0:31
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    @PeteL.Clark On a side note, I'm assuming that when the OP says "before April 15th" he really means "right before the latest possible deadline to accept an offer that expires on April 15th." – Roger Fan Apr 12 '15 at 5:40
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    Finally, I don't at all think it is "insane" to reject an unfunded offer for the possibility of a funded offer, however remote. Depending upon the field and the OP's situation, that's either a reasonable choice or the only reasonable choice. For instance, in the field of mathematics I wouldn't advise anyone to take an unfunded offer the first time around. In my opinion, it would be better to wait another year and apply again. – Pete L. Clark Apr 12 '15 at 5:51
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You ask whether it is "legal", but it is probably not a legal matter. You can drop out of an academic program at any time with no legal consequences beyond paying the relevant fees. Unless your acceptance means signing a contract which specifically requires something on your end, I don't see what you could possibly be legally held to. I am not an attorney but rather a professor, and I can say that in practice no American graduate program would pursue legal recourse against a student in this way barring some truly bizarre, unique set of circumstances.

The relevant questions are rather whether it is ethical, whether it is polite, and whether it is in your own best interests. The first question seems quite clear. Are you really asking whether it is "okay" to rescind your word in a professional context? I would hope that you know the answer.

There may be some situations in which it is so much in your best interests to renege on an offer that it could be worth asking about the possibility of doing so. Most graduate programs in particular are not insistent on keeping students who have decided that they don't want to stay there. But if you're asking about accepting now with the explicit plan of reneging later: I don't really know what to say without it sounding like a lecture on adult responsibility. This is not a specifically academic issue. I can only hope that your life up until now has given you some useful experience.

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    I think the ethical question is more complex than you make it out to be. Unless this is a very highly regarded prospective student, the power relationship is almost entirely one way here. – Joe Apr 12 '15 at 4:50
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    Every year, many offers end up being made after April 15th for all kinds of programs. I don't think it's irresponsible at all to accept an offer before the 15th knowing that you will pursue another offer if you get off a waitlist somewhere else after the 15th. Otherwise, pursuing those offers would be incredibly high-risk for prospective students, who are already in a position of very little power. It just takes some additional hoops, which are explicitly laid out in the April 15th Resolution. – Roger Fan Apr 12 '15 at 5:31
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    @Roger: This replicates a comment above, but: the April 15th Resolution applies to funded offers only. In that case, if by "hoops" you mean "asking for permission from the department whose offer you accepted" then that's what I said in my answer. How much "power" the student has doesn't seem to be the issue: if you agree that you're going to do something, it's unethical to back out of that agreement because something better came along later without getting permission to back out. It's not "evil" to break your word; it may be what you feel you have to do. But it isn't ethical. – Pete L. Clark Apr 12 '15 at 5:42
  • @PeteL.Clark My point was more about the "lecture on adult responsibility." As an applicant, I think it's perfectly acceptable, on April 15th, to think "I am accepting my current offer at X, but if I receive an offer to Y in the coming days then I will attempt to renege on my accepted offer in favor of Y's, following the conditions laid out in the resolution." I think that's a perfectly moral and ethical position to hold. – Roger Fan Apr 12 '15 at 5:48
  • @Roger: As we established above, I wouldn't use the word "renege" as you did, but otherwise: yes, I agree. – Pete L. Clark Apr 12 '15 at 5:53
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As several other people have said, as long as your agreement is only verbal, this isn't really a legal question, but an ethical one. When considering whether one can accept an offer like this and then back out with a relatively clear conscience, one mainly needs to consider what you're being counted on to do in the next year, and how disruptive it will be if you don't show up and do that.

It sounds from your description like what you will be expected to do is put your butt in a seat, and sign tuition checks. If that's the case, I think you can pull out without too much guilt if you get a funded offer. Will it really be that disruptive to the program if you're not there? I don't think so. Obviously you should expect to (deservedly) lose any deposit you pay, but I don't think it's likely you'll have any real negative consequences beyond that. Certainly, if I were the graduate director at this "reputed university in USA," I would understand your decision.

EDIT: Incidentally, while I understand it is important that grad schools know who is coming to their program next year in a timely manner, I don't have much patience for moralizing at the OP, since the current situation that they might end up in is a creation of the schools, not the students, and one that the schools positioned to fix, and the applicants are not. We have known for fifty years now how to solve this problem, and haven't done so, even with an extremely successful and smoothly running implementation for medical residents that in many cases the same institutions participate in. I understand that it's an enormous collective action problem, but until it's fixed, people occasionally flaking out on us to take other grad school offers is a very small price we will deservingly pay.

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    I agree that if you get in a situation of having committed to an unfunded offer and received a funded offer, it is worth asking if you can back out of the unfunded offer. As you say, in most cases I think people will be very understanding about this. What I like less is the idea of accepting the unfunded offer while planning in advance to renege if the better offer comes along. Really think twice about accepting the unfunded offer anyway! – Pete L. Clark Apr 11 '15 at 23:14
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    @PeteL.Clark Fair enough. I think if you're making unfunded offers in a field where a student has a reasonable expectation of getting funded offer, then you must know that this comes with the territory. Probably part of this is the context of mathematics, where at least I regard an unfunded offer as something approaching an insult (this certainly does not apply to all fields). – Ben Webster Apr 12 '15 at 2:41
  • @PeteL.Clark However, I don't understand what distinction you're making about premeditation; does it matter whether the OP had a cunning plan all along or is so excited to receive a funded offer s/he changes his/her mind spontaneously? Once we agree that there exists some offer for which s/he would renege on the already accepted offer, as the old adage goes, the rest is haggling over the price (quoteinvestigator.com/2012/03/07/haggling). – Ben Webster Apr 12 '15 at 2:43
  • To me it does matter a bit. People change their mind over time, and early career graduate students are famously mercurial. You can commit to attending a school and then drop out one month into the program, and that's probably okay. What I don't like is accepting an offer knowing at the time that you will definitively turn it down in case of getting a better offer later. I think that means that there was something dishonest about your acceptance, and it undermines the courtesy that was extended to the student by means of the universal deadline. – Pete L. Clark Apr 12 '15 at 5:58
  • @PeteL.Clark So what if the OP tells themself that they is going to stick with the decision, but something deep in their heart tells them that if they get a chance at a funded offer, they'll probably decide to take it in the moment? What if conversely they just need to tell themselves that they can switch to a funded offer it appears later to move forward and take the offer on the table now? Mens rea is complicated enough in a criminal context. – Ben Webster Apr 13 '15 at 4:01
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It is possible, legal, and even ethical to do so, though there are some additional stipulations that you will need to follow (see below). Of course, you still run the risk of burning bridges with the people from the school that you end up declining, so think and plan carefully with that in mind.

Most (North American) universities are signatories of the "Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees and Assistants" by the Council of Graduate Schools (commonly known as the April 15th resolution), and as far as I know even those that aren't signatories generally follow it's guidelines. You can read the agreement here.

The rules regarding funded offers, including offers after April 15th, are explicitly stated.

Students are under no obligation to respond to offers of financial support prior to April 15; earlier deadlines for acceptance of such offers violate the intent of this Resolution. 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. Similarly, an offer by an institution after April 15 is conditional on presentation by the student of the written release from any previously accepted offer.

As far as I know, most schools will (not necessarily happily) give this permission if asked. No one wants to force you to go to their program if you don't want to. But it does make for some awkward at best interactions, and remember that academia is a very small and connection-driven place.

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    It seems worth noting that the whole problem is that the first school didn't offer him funding, which would make this point moot. – Ben Webster Apr 12 '15 at 22:36
  • @BenWebster I think that, ethically, if it's okay for an initial funded offer (which it is given the conditions stated above), then it has to be okay for an unfunded offer as well. Of course, there's the other side of that situation, which is whether it's okay to drop the unfunded offer without asking permission, which you are correct the resolution doesn't address. – Roger Fan Apr 13 '15 at 4:46
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EDIT: I've been awake for far too long and missed the part about it being GRADUATE, not undergraduate. (However, if you're not the original poster and you're applying for undergrad, go ahead and read the rest!)

If you think you might have to reneg on a graduate acceptance, considering the increased effort applied by the college and the possible professional implications later on, it would probably be best to talk to them about it first. At least let them know that it's problematic for you to accept their offer so soon without funding, when others may offer you funding that could make a huge difference. If they cannot at least acknowledge that this is a reasonable concern, they may not be the kind of people whose cooperation you want to chain your future to.


I agree with much of what Pete L. Clark says, but not all.

The ethical implications of accepting an offer and then reneging work like this: In college, you're a number. If your number goes off the list, someone else's number gets onto the list. By accepting a more preferable school and reneging on the less preferable school, you do a service both to yourself AND to the student who discovers that they've been given your place.

The admissions staff is not going to take it personally and get offended. They will get LOTS of letters from students who accepted, but have to call it off. Maybe they decided to join the military. Maybe they had a family issue and they have to take a second job. Maybe they are expecting a child. Maybe they have an illness. Maybe some other thing out of countless possibilities happened. Some students won't even write to inform them of this; they'll just not register for classes. Believe me - colleges are set up for this because it happens ALL the time!!!

Even if someone over there does get miffed, so what? One minute and thirty seconds of them clucking over by the coffee machine is worth N-O-T-H-I-N-G compared to the benefit that would accrue both to yourself, and the student who will take your place. At your age, your sensitivity to social pressure is higher than it will be when you're older. Take my advice - learn to disappoint people when you have to. If you don't, you'll be lead around all your life. Trust me, if you go to a college you don't want to, you're going to look back in ten years and ask, "Why the hell did I give up on the better college - just to save some theoretical person from theoretically disapproving of me? I don't owe it to anyone, to get a lesser education than I can get, just so they don't have to be irritated for a minute. Saving them from that meaningless irritation has cost me so much!!!"

You don't HAVE to make that mistake, so DON'T.

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    I agree with your general point, but you seem to have totally elided the difference between college and grad school here. Grad school applications are read by the professors you would be working with in the program, and incoming classes are often in the single digits (depending on the department). It a MUCH bigger deal to accept and then back out of a graduate admissions offer than a undergraduate offer (which I agree you should have absolutely no compunction about changing your mind over). – Ben Webster Apr 11 '15 at 22:03
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    In particular, the people you annoy and inconvenience are not admissions officers, they are senior people in your field who you might cross paths with in the future. I agree that the benefit to the student (especially of a funded vs. unfunded offer) is big enough that it's still a reasonable decision, but it's not as trivial as you make it sound. – Ben Webster Apr 11 '15 at 22:05
  • Ah, you're right. I missed the distinction. I've been awake for too long! I will amend my post. – Huns Apr 11 '15 at 22:11
  • @Huns: for future reference: if the question had been about undergraduate admission, it would have been off-topic for this site. – Pete L. Clark Apr 11 '15 at 23:16
  • Thanks for letting me know. I had no idea until you said so. It would be nice if they hinted at that in the header somewhere. By all the topics that get put on hold, it seems like mine is a common mistake. – Huns Apr 12 '15 at 0:01
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Many departments (at least in mathematics, but I believe also in other fields) have agreed not to "poach" each other's students after the April 15 deadline. If such a department, say at university X, wanted to make you an offer (funded or not) after April 15 and if you've already accepted an offer from university Y, then the admissions chair at X should first ask the admissions chair at Y for permission to make that offer. I would expect that Y would grant permission if Y's offer was unfunded and X's planned offer was funded, but there's no guarantee about that. (When I was graduate admissions chair, in the late 90's, I was once in the position of X, and Y gave permission but was not too happy about it. In that instance, both offers were funded.)

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