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We want to begin by acknowledging that our decision to include a page on this topic arose from a concern pointed out to us by our friend and colleague, Dana Dean DoeringDana pointed out one of the practices we are targeting in this article.  She is not responsible for all of what is here, but she did make us think more deeply about this topic.  You will  see more about her specific contribution as you read down. 

At the point of admission of a student / client to a school or program and the parents signing a contract, there are several critical things to observe -- very carefully.  Schools, programs, and other providers  sometimes take steps in that setting that we feel are inappropriate. Many schools and programs are setting up "Heads I win; tails you lose" situations with their customers/clients.  Too often desperate parents acquiesce without a challenge. These steps fall into these categories:

  • Advance deposits

  • Payment obligations

  • Refund policies.

  • Liability releases.

  • Confidentiality and communication restrictions. 

All of these can be manipulated to the disadvantage of parents/clients. We advise parents to resist pressures in these areas and will use our influence to  encourage schools, programs, and other providers to stop these practices.  Consider this item by item.


We understand and support the need of some schools and programs to require a substantial advance deposit to hold a place for an incoming student / client on a date certain.  However our guidelines do not allow for deposits being non-refundable except to the extent that the school or program would otherwise take a loss by holding a space for a student who did not enroll.  To the extent of offsetting that loss, we have no objection. A relevant loss might arise due to direct expense to the school or program while preparing for the enrollment at issue. A relevant loss might arise from revenue space remaining vacant because one or more others were turned away anticipating this enrollment.  Deposits required can reasonably be up to two months of comprehensive fees.  But we believe that in case the enrollment does not occur, the deposit should always be refunded except a sufficient amount to cover the just mentioned direct costs to the school or program that arose from anticipating the enrollment covered by the deposit.


We expect schools and programs that comply with our guidelines to protect potential enrollees (and their financial sponsors) with a legally binding contract assuring the person placing the deposits of refund availability as noted here.  We advise parents to resist placing such deposits without such legally binding assurance.


Note that our support for a deposit on this basis only applies to schools and programs contracting for enrollment on a date certain.  Understanding that contingencies can arise that force a school or program to postpone entry, agree that schools and programs need an escape clause for such contingencies, but in such cases we expect them to pay a penalty of at least one free day of service following admission for every day the school or program delayed the admission from the "date certain."


We have become aware of schools and programs requiring a substantial non-refundable deposit to hold a place on a waiting list for the next available space without a commitment to a date certain.  Such procedures are contrary to our guidelines.  When there is not a date certain, we understand and agree with a school or program requiring a deposit up to the cost of the first month of services (or reasonable approximation thereof) but with the legally binding provision that the deposit is fully refundable if the student /client enrolls in another school or program before a commitment to a date certain is offered by the school or program.  If a school or program receives a deposit on that basis, then later can offer a date certain, at that point the school or program, consistent with our guidelines may ask the person placing the deposit to accept the date certain and the refund restrictions noted above, or to drop off the waiting list with a full refund.  We have no objection to programs increasing the required deposit at that point to the cost of two months of service.  Again we encourage parents (and referral sources) to seek a different school or program when requested to place a non-refundable deposit to be placed on a waiting list with no commitment to a date certain.


Parents need to thoroughly understand payment obligations they incur at point of admission and carefully consider their impact.  Our guidelines require schools and programs to be transparent about what is required financially, and we caution people responsible for paying to read the fine print.  Refund policies are incorporated into the paragraphs that immediately follow.


For example, it is customary for conventional boarding schools to require parents to contract for and usually pay in advance a year's tuition.  When a student is dismissed for cause, even on the second day of school, the tuition for an entire year is forfeit -- frequently to the astonishment and dismay of the parents.  While we are not focusing this website on conventional boarding schools, some of them do serve the population of students at interest here, and we abhor that practice. To the extent that our guidelines relate to such schools, we affirm that the practice is contrary to our guidelines. 


We have no objection to a school that has denied admission to others for lack of space to retain proportional amount of money from a tuition payment on behalf of a dismissed student to cover the revenue lapse until that space can be filled.  If a school has not denied admission to others, we do not believe the school is acting appropriately to  retain any more of the tuition than an amount in proportion to time the student was actively enrolled. The present custom gives the school an incentive to enroll students it would reasonably predict will fail, dismiss the student at the first excuse, and pocket a year's tuition without delivering a year of service.  We are surprised at the number of parents who are prominent business people who put up with this.  We do understand that this is the custom among boarding schools and they if they pay any attention to what we say here, their response will be "everyone does it."  Our response to that is to point out how often we hear that from teenagers, and we would prefer that the folks who operate boarding schools would demonstrate greater maturity.


Let's go back to the schools and programs primarily of interest to our readers.   We see schools and programs taking a year of tuition up front -- some times requiring it and sometimes offering an incentive discount for those who choose to pay that way.  It is contrary to our guidelines for schools and programs to receive money on this basis if they are not prepared to provide a proportionate refund when the student / client might leave the school or program for reasons that the financial sponsor (usually a parent) has no control over. 


This is the specific concern Dana Dean Doering brought to our attention.  As Dana reminded us,  parents of people over the age of 18 usually have no direct control over whether or not that person remains in that school/program or leaves.  Therefore for a school or program to accept long term non-refundable payments is contrary to our guidelines.  We also point out that when the Cedu Schools went bankrupt and closed abruptly, some parents had exhausted their financial resources by paying a year ahead, taking advantage of a discount.  Those funds were lost in the bankruptcy or may have converted to a settlement of pennies on a dollar.  So, going beyond Dana's concern, we have a concern here applicable to students / clients of any age.  In a guideline from this page and from our Guidelines on Program Ownership, we call on schools and programs to place in escrow, or otherwise insure all advance payments, so that financial sponsors will not take a loss on these in case of insolvency of the school or program. 


We see room for an exception here.  Benchmark Young Adult School has, in the past, accepted advance payments that are contractually nonrefundable even if the student / client leaves prematurely.  While we are not entirely comfortable with this as the official written policy goes, we also note that Benchmark normally (we think always) provides intense support to parents when their son or daughter leaves inappropriately -- meaning services do not stop when the student leaves.  In addition, in cases like this Benchmark has refunded money to parents who, in the judgment of  Benchmark's management,  have supported efforts to bring the student back to Benchmark and not been successful. In addition it has refunded when the student was, again in the judgment of  Benchmark's management, truly ready to move on from Benchmark before the time paid for was exhausted. We applaud the purpose behind that, but cannot fully endorse not protecting the financial sponsors by making those services and concessions a matter of contract. 


We have concerns about excessive liability releases.  We have reports of parents being required to sign liability releases that leave the schools and programs completely free of any responsibility for anything. and that any dispute is automatically resolved in the interest of the school or program.  We agree that schools and programs would reasonably ask for a release on optional activities that involve some risk of injury that families agree to accept.  Examples would include use of off-road vehicles at Elk Mountain and Elk Creek Academies and the trapeze work at Sober College.    We do not not agree with excessive use of liability releases to protect schools and programs from accountability for what they promise to deliver.


Finally, with all due respect for the principle that students / clients are entitled to confidentiality for their own protection, it is an abuse of that principle to use it to protect the provider of services.   FamilyLightsm had a student placed in a young adult therapeutic program who restricted the authorization to release information to us.  The program took advantage of that to leave us with the impression the release was unrestricted.  Then they proceeded to give us only "good news" about the progress of the student, failing to mention any concerns or problems -- making the student, the therapist and the program look like they were doing better than they were.  That lasted until the student went into crisis and was suddenly dismissed by the program.  We don't hold it against that program, so we won't name the program; upon investigation it appeared that the therapist was freelancing and the program acknowledged an obligation to be more attentive to this matter in the future.  


Too often, with schools and programs not accustomed to working with educational consultants, we hear things like "We can't talk about that; your client is entitled to confidentiality." With young adults there is a little more emphasis placed.  There, they might add, "it is part of this person's process of maturing that they should be independent of parents and referral sources working for parents."  Balderdash.    Young people are in programs for a reason and need to remain accountable to people who are financing their growth.  Yes, there is very good reason to respect the young person's growth and that does call for consideration.  Some confidences still need to be protected. However, that does not justify "no accountability." 


In general, schools and programs, including those for young adults, that do not work collaboratively are hiding something about themselves and need to be regarded with suspicion. In any case, they are outside our guidelines.    What is necessary is for the school / program to collaborate with the financial  sponsor to obtain the necessary authorizations to release information usually on the understanding that bills get paid so long as the authorizations are in place and to advise the referral source if they are not. 


We recently had a client at Sober Living by the Sea, who cancelled a release to us.  We were notified by the program that they could not talk to us. Until the situation was resolved we worked through the parents, who still had an open release, to get the information we needed.  These things do happen and that program was not covering up for anything. 


Bulleted checklist of guidelines will be developed.


Feedback is invited. We will publish selected feedback.  Email

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last updated 11-15-08; minor edits up to  1-9-09

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