Harvard College’s decision in 2017 to revoke the acceptances of at least 10 incoming students following inappropriate social media posts sent a message loud and clear to high school seniors: those acceptance letters, scholarships, and even financial aid awards you receive are not written in stone.
Indeed, colleges and universities reserve the right to revise or rescind their offers to students — both current and incoming — who do not uphold their end of the bargain. That includes those who let their grade point average (GPA) slip or fail to model behavior that reflects the school’s core values.
Colleges do not pull their offers frequently or without cause, said Melissa Clinedinst, associate director of research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in an interview, but it does happen to a small number of college-bound kids every year for a variety of infractions.
“I would say it’s rare in terms of the number of students affected, but not as rare as you might think in terms of the percentage of colleges that revoke an offer in a given year,” she said, noting the NACAC’s latest research found that roughly 20 percent of colleges rescind at least one offer in a given year.
A dramatic drop in grades after an admission offer has been accepted might potentially cause a college to revoke its offer to an incoming freshman, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a free website about college admissions and financial aid, in an email interview. “Senioritis is the most common reason for withdrawing an offer of admission,” he said, referring to the inclination of students to slack off as graduation approaches.
Many colleges explicitly note in their acceptance letters to students that admission is contingent upon keeping their senior-year grades strong. (Related: Preparing for the college decision letter)
According to the College Board, university admissions officers have access to both midyear report cards and year-end transcripts. Many specifically ask applicants to list their senior-year courses, with information about course levels and credit hours, and want students to demonstrate academic commitment and course completion.
If the students’ grades drop dramatically, schools may ask high school seniors to explain the reason and potentially grant leniency if it relates to a health or personal problem. But they will just as easily take a pass on a student if they don’t like what they hear.
“And because the colleges do not receive final grades until June or July, students may not learn of a revoked admission until July or August, after they've given up spots at other colleges and have few options left,” the College Board writes .
Financial aid flubs
In some cases, enrolled students who slack off during their senior year are allowed to pursue their degree on campus, but they may see their financial aid package shrink. “That could happen if the financial aid is based on academic merit and the student no longer qualifies,” said Kantrowitz. “It all depends on the terms of the merit-based aid offer.”
Some merit-based scholarships have similar academic requirements for continued receipt of the scholarship in subsequent years. ( Calculator: How much do I need to save for college? )
Kantrowitz also noted that eligibility for need-based financial aid, which is awarded based strictly on financial need, is also typically contingent on maintaining satisfactory academic performance during their college career, such as having at least a 2.0 GPA. The GPA threshold varies by school, but students who fall below the line for even a single semester could potentially lose their aid package.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics , 85 percent of students at both public four-year colleges and universities and at private nonprofit four-year institutions were awarded some form of financial aid in the 2016-2017 academic year, the most recent year for which data are available.1
Ultimately, colleges want students who reflect their ideals and values. Thus, students who demonstrate poor decision-making or appear to have a broken moral compass may be unceremoniously dismissed.
In the case of Harvard College, admissions officers were made aware of offensive messages and graphics posted on an online chat group by a small number of incoming freshman, according to the school’s newspaper , The Harvard Crimson.2 After reviewing the posts, the college reportedly emailed all students involved and asked them to explain their actions, notifying them that their admission was under review.
As a result of the incident, the school newspaper reported that admissions offers were pulled for at least 10 prospective members of the Class of 2021.
“While colleges do not proactively review students’ social media posts, they will do so if a problem is brought to their attention,” said Kantrowitz. “Facebook is public, even if a post is made in a closed group.”
He also added that colleges may rescind the admission of a student who is found to have lied on his or her application, cheated on an exam, or found guilty of plagiarism.
Other behavior that might sink a student’s college acceptance includes drug and alcohol abuse, underage drinking charges, or an arrest.
You won’t win any friends in the admissions office either if you get suspended or expelled from your high school, or fail to graduate after you receive your college acceptance letter.
And finally, Kantrowitz said admissions officers also frown upon students who, either out of indecisiveness or out of desire to keep options open, send acceptances to more than one college. Whether that results in a pulled admission offer depends on the school.
Next steps if your offer is revoked
Schools that rescind a student’s offer typically send a warning letter in advance notifying the student that their admission is under review.
They may ask the student to explain the reason for their poor academic performance senior year, or questionable decision-making.
Do not ignore this letter. Failure to respond, in most cases, results in an automatic revocation.
College counselors encourage students who receive such letters to contact their admissions officer without delay to speak with them by phone, or better yet, schedule an in-person meeting. This is your chance to change their perception.
Perhaps you performed poorly not because of so-called “senioritis,” but because you challenged yourself to take a course that proved too rigorous. Or, maybe you experienced a personal problem that impacted your emotional health temporarily — such as the death of a friend or family member, a parent’s divorce, or a significant financial loss.
If you haven’t received a warning letter, but fear your good record may have been blemished, it may also benefit you to be proactive and reach out to your college or university before you hear from them. Ask what you can do to demonstrate your commitment to success.
If you plead your case and the college or university still revokes your offer, there’s not much left by way of recourse. In most cases, you won’t have much luck in a court of law.
Nearly all colleges and universities these days include a disclaimer on their admission offers that reserves their right to revoke an offer. In most cases, that protects even the small number of colleges each year that mistakenly mail acceptance letters to students that have actually been rejected.
Pulled admissions offers don’t happen often, but they are a tangible risk for students who slip up.
To protect their offers and pave their way to a bright future, the College Board recommends high school seniors maintain a challenging course load, commit to an internship or career-focused job, keep a calendar of their activities and deadlines to maintain a healthy balance, and celebrate their last year of school responsibly.
Doing so will not only minimize the effects of senioritis, but also potentially help college-bound students transition more effectively to the rigors of college life.
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This article was originally published in July 2017. It has been updated.
1 National Center for Education Statistics, “Sources of Financial Aid," May 2019.
2 The Harvard Crimson, “Harvard Rescinds Acceptances for At Least Ten Students for Obscene Memes,” 2017.