Colleges weigh pros and cons of extending deposit deadlines

April 1, 2024

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The rocky rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid has wreaked havoc on colleges’ admission timelines.

They’ve done their best to adapt; when the department announced in January that it would not begin sending out processed student aid forms until mid-March, some institutions promptly pushed back their traditional May 1 commitment deadlines to give students and their financial aid offices more time.

Others held out hope that wouldn’t be necessary. But since the department began sending out Institutional Student Information Records, or ISIRs, last month, many more institutions have extended their deposit deadlines. They include large public universities such as Georgia Tech and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and small private institutions including The College of Idaho.

The National Association of College Admissions Counselors, which has been tracking commitment deadlines at its nearly 2,000 member institutions, found that the vast majority of the roughly 460 that responded by March 28 had pushed their deposit deadlines back to at least May 15. Only 25 institutions said they were not pushing their deadlines back, while 37 indicated they were considering doing so and 80 said they would grant extensions on a case-by-case basis.

David Hawkins, NACAC’s chief education and policy officer, said the slow pace of ISIR processing, combined with a steady stream of further delays and calculation errors, has eviscerated any lingering hope among college officials that they could finalize their incoming classes by May.

“The department signaled that this would roll out very quickly, and that would have been the best case scenario for colleges if they could get this done in a few weeks,” he said. “But the pace has not kept up with that.”

NACAC, along with several other higher ed organizations, recommended back in January that colleges band together and uniformly extend deposit deadlines to a set date to make a hectic and cramped college decision season a little easier on families.

That didn’t happen. Many institutions are keeping their May 1 deadlines, and among those that issued extensions, the new dates range from mid-May to August. The result is a grab-bag of commitment dates that even the most well-organized student would struggle to keep straight without a spreadsheet.

Hawkins said the staggered response deadlines “could create some friction,” resulting in student confusion and, for institutions, higher rates of false commitments and summer melt. More concerning, he said, is the fact that so many colleges have yet to move their deadlines at all.

But he believes they are just delaying the inevitable.

“Colleges have been taking a wait-and-see approach and hedging their bets, seeing how much FAFSA data they’d get back in March,” he said. “Now that April is nigh upon us, the pressure internally for institutions is going to push many of them to move deadlines back to at least June.”

‘We Wanted to be Sure’

Last week, Morehead State University in Kentucky did just that, changing its commitment deadline from May 1 to June 15. Heidi Neal, Morehead’s assistant vice president of enrollment management, said her team had been fielding a barrage of questions from prospective students for weeks.

Once the ISIRs started coming in, Neal heard from many of her colleagues across Kentucky that the forms were riddled with errors and packaging issues. She knew then that they had to rip off the band-aid and push back the date.

“It was time we let students and families know we heard them and stood with them,” she said.

The list of institutions extending their deadlines continues to grow as the department’s errors rack up. Over the weekend the University of Alabama at Birmingham became the latest to move to a June 1 deposit deadline, Bradley Barnes, its vice provost for enrollment management, confirmed in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Other institutions are extending deadlines less out of logistical necessity than concern for admitted students.

Baylor University, for instance, moved to a June 15 deadline last week. Officials weren’t terribly worried about delayed ISIRs; Baylor is one of the few institutions that uses the College Scholarship Service Profile, a FAFSA calculator alternative, and they felt confident they could accurately predict student financial aid by May without processed ISIRs. But when Mary Herridge, Baylor’s associate vice president of enrollment management, learned students couldn’t make corrections on their forms until April, she knew they couldn’t stick to the May 1 deadline.

“We wanted to be realistic and give students at least two weeks to consider their options,” she said. “It’s also been a year of extreme disruption, and we wanted to be measured and sure before we made our decision.”

The Holdouts

Hawkins understands colleges’ reluctance to push back commitment deadlines. Doing so would mean enrollment and yield rates won’t crystallize until well into the summer, which could have downstream effects on everything from orientation planning to university-wide budgeting.

“There is immense pressure on tuition-dependent institutions to predict their yield rates early in order to understand what the next fiscal year will look like,” he said. “Admissions offices are basically on a 12-month calendar now, too, so pushing back this process means pushing back when they’ll start recruiting for next year.”

Hawkins believes that’s why the wave of deadline extensions predicted in January didn’t materialize right away: the stakes were too high to make that call until colleges could be sure it was necessary.

Some institutions are still hedging their bets on the feasibility of a May 1 deadline—including some large public flagships, all eight Ivies and most other highly selective institutions.

Kasey Urquídez, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the university would “encourage students who are ready to commit to Arizona” by May 1, but also remain flexible and allow deposits after that date. UA has said it will fully refund student deposits up to May 15.

Many institutions that use the CSS Profile have not extended commitment deadlines, hoping to rely on their estimates to package aid offers. Some, like Johns Hopkins University and Lafayette College, are locked in on May 1, and are well-resourced enough to meet students’ financial needs regardless.

“FAFSA-only schools are certainly in a huge bind, and I feel for them … [but] we have the information we need, and we have already provided financial aid packages to our admitted students,” Forrest Stuart, Lafayette’s director of enrollment manager, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “We continually monitor the situation, and if we feel it necessary to move the deadline, we will. But there are no plans at this point.”

Some highly competitive universities are reluctant to be the first among their peers to change the date. An admissions director at a highly selective college, who asked to remain anonymous, predicted that none of the country’s most selective institutions would move its deadline unless they all did.

“To do so would mean extending a competitive advantage to everyone else,” he said.

Others, like Fordham University, which also uses the Profile, are still waiting to make a final call.

“For now, we’re maintaining the deadline: adjusting it would mean ripple effects on the first-year student experience,” Fordham spokesperson Bob Howe wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.  “That said, we’re closely monitoring FAFSA developments, and we will be flexible with students and their families, understanding some students may be awaiting information from other institutions to inform their final decision.”

Hawkins said that while some well-resourced colleges may ultimately keep the May 1 deadline, most of the holdouts will likely acquiesce soon. Even institutions that have extended their deadlines may not have shifted them enough; Hawkins thinks those that have moved to May 15 will have to extend them until at least June.

“The immutable law of spring yield is, if you don’t have your class yet, that deadline is moving whether you want it to or not,” he said.

Herridge, of Baylor, said she believes the June 15 date gives the admissions office enough breathing room to account for more delays. But after months of missed deadlines, she’s keeping her fingers crossed—just in case.

“We thought we’d be done by mid-April, and we were wrong,” she said. “I hope we got it right this time. We’ll see, I guess.”

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