ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is the Indiana Tech Offer an Offer to Enter Legal Relations?

The National Jurist reports on the soon-to-be-established Indiana Tech Law School's "unique early decision application process."  The start-up law school will accept early applications from September 15th October 31st.  Those who apply early will pay a reduced application fee, and the school pledges to get back to them with an answer within three weeks.  According to Dean Peter Alexander,  accepted students will have one week to withdraw their applications from other law schools and will pay a $300 deposit to Indiana Tech.  "Any applicant who accepts his or her seat through the early decision program is also representing that they will not submit a later application to any other law school.”


Ft. Wayne
Ft. Wayne, IN, future home of the Indiana Tech Law School
So what do we have here?  Indiana Tech is asking students to commit to attending their unaccredited law school in return for a promise not to apply to any other law schools.  If a student takes Indiana Tech up on its offer, what is that student really obligated to do?  Is this a unilateral contract?  If the student applies, is accepted and pays the $300 deposit, is she bound to attend Indiana Tech?  What if, despite Dean Alexander's best efforts, Indiana Tech cannot attract enough students to operate a new law school?  Would the student then be entitled to reliance damages arising from her decision to withdraw her applications to other law schools or her decision to not apply to other schools to which she can show she would have gained admittance) in return for an implied promise to provide her with a three-year educational program culminating in a J.D.? 


My guess is that a student who applies to the early decision process is actually doing nothing more than locking in a safe school at a savings of $25, because of the reduced application fee.  A student could apply early, get accepted, and make no deposit.  She could apply to ten other schools and then come crawling back to Indiana Tech in April or really any time before classes start in August.  My guess is there will still be a seat for her.   Or she could make the deposit and still apply to other schools notwithstanding her representation that she was not doing so.  And if she gets admitted at an accredited school, she will go there and lose the $325 she invested at Indiana Tech.  

Indiana Tech might think that such conduct reflects poorly on the character and fitness of the student, but that would be a misreading of the nature of a contractual obligation (assuming that this is a contractual obligation), at least according to Justice Holmes.  As this is not a relational contract but a one-off transaction, the deal here is nothing more than a promise to perform or to pay damages.  Indiana Tech is better off to the tune of $325 for the student's fleeting interest in the Indiana Tech enterprise (less the administrative costs of processing the application, but those costs are mostly already built in).  The student has made her Holmsian choice and has learned her first lesson in contracts law before even cracking a casebook.


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