Colleges are asking students for untold thousands of dollars in nonrefundable fees for dorm rooms they may never live in.
Some of the fees, which recently caught the eye of the college admissions officials, may fall in an ethical gray area.
At times, would-be students are asked to pay money to save a spot in dorm rooms they will never have the chance to live in because they are subsequently rejected, without a refund. At other times, according to the head of National Association for College Admission Counseling's Admissions Practices Committee, a deposit request could be considered an attempt to manipulate the admissions process.
The University of Florida, which became the focus of recent chatter, collects roughly $170,000 a year from students for dorm rooms they will never call home.
About $100,000 of that comes from some 4,700 students whom the university doesn’t admit, said T.J. Logan, an associate director of housing at University of Florida. The university asks all applicants who would like to live in the dorms to pay a housing application fee – that’s $25 students don’t get back even if they aren’t admitted.
Another $70,000 or so comes from about 700 students who pay a down payment on a dorm room before May 1 but then don’t live on campus, either because they live somewhere else in Gainesville or went somewhere else for college. Florida asks admitted students to pay a $175 fee even if they have yet to enroll. At most, $75 of each payment is refunded; the university keeps the rest.
Logan said the money is small compared to the housing department’s $52 million budget.
“In no way, shape or form is it a revenue piece for us,” he said.
The goal of the fees is to help gauge demand for housing and to try to come up with a fair way to distribute the university’s 7,500 spaces.
Logan said if the university waited to take housing applications until after everyone was admitted, “a very large percentage of our incoming class would have the exact same application date, leaving us with no differentiation for the purpose of assigning spaces.”
But Ohio State University does just that, said Christy Blessing, the university’s director of housing services. The university charges a $50 application fee and a $300 space reservation fee – but only after a student has committed to attending Ohio State.
“We don’t contract with students for housing until after they have committed to the university,” Blessing said. That practice give Ohio State a better sense of the real number of students likely to attend.
Parents may consider some fees levied before their students enroll an example of inappropriate arm-twisting by universities.
“I think that giving better housing to kids who commit early is unethical,” said a posting on College Confidential , website on navigating the admissions process.
NACAC may also see some ethical questions about the fees. The association’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice  has a section meant to give admitted students breathing room to choose colleges without pressure until May 1.
“One of the things we protect is that schools never do anything to manipulate or threaten a student to make a decision prior to May 1,” said Todd Rinehart, the chairman of NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee. But he said housing fees fell in a “gray area” because they are not strictly enrollment office practices.
In a blog post , Jim Jump, a former NACAC president who is academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher's School, in Virginia, said a $25 housing application fee would appear to be O.K. under NACAC’s rules.
But he said Florida's $175 pre-payment is “more problematic.” Jump said the fee “could (emphasis on could) be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate an enrollment commitment.”
He also called the nonrefundable nature of the deposit “indefensible.”
“If I pay the fee and then decide not to attend Florida, I should receive a refund because I am not receiving the benefit,” he said.
Logan said Florida returns $75 of the $175 to a student who decides to attend another university. The rest is considered a cancellation fee.
Also, Logan said it’s not clear why the $25 application fee is $25. The fee has been in place for a “very, very long time” and it may have cost $25 to process applications when the fee was set, but he is not sure how much the process costs now.
Other institutions, he said, do nearly the same thing.
Kent State University has a $25 nonrefundable housing application fee it expects students to pay when they apply. Kent State also charges a $200 fee that is applied toward a student’s housing costs, but, unlike Florida, the university refunds the $200 if the student cancels by June 1.