So, there it is. You have your early acceptance letter from your dream school in your hand. You’re set to enroll. All that’s left to do is to fill out your paperwork and pack your bags—and you’re good to go, right? Hmmm, not so fast there! Have you gotten any information about how much financial aid you’re going to receive? It sure would be a bummer to find out you may not be able to pay the bill.
So what's the financial catch in early decision?
Probably the most apparent problem of applying under the Early Decision (ED) option is that if you receive early acceptance, you will get one—and only one—financial aid offer. If it isn’t what you need, this is the only condition under which you can decline early admission. (Remember that little line you signed when you applied for early action? You’re committed unless the financial gurus don’t come through for you.) Do you really want to wait until late spring and then find out you may have to scratch your big plans?
Once you’ve made your commitment, the school may not offer you the Cadillac of financial aid offers, since they know it’s a take it or leave it deal. Getting early acceptance also means you’ll probably need to pay a deposit on your enrollment—at least several hundred dollars. If your financial aid offer just isn’t going to cut it, backing out of your early action commitment will not only lose you your coveted spot but the cash you laid out to insure it.
It’s this tricky little catch that results in the tendency for many Early Decision applicants to come from wealthier families; they aren’t as worried about how they’re going to pay for school. This can create some socioeconomic disparities among the Early Decision crowd and may be why more exclusive schools tend to have a disproportionate amount of students from wealthy backgrounds. It's also one of the main driving forces behind a recent trend in colleges dropping their early application options, citing the disadvantage it creates for eligible students who just can't afford their tuition.
Early admission forces a different kind of early decision
The financial risks of early action may not matter to you. It’s your dream school after all, and if you have to take out bigger loans to do it, you’re willing to do that. You’ve been accepted and you’re moving forward. Decide if it’s that important to you. School-related debt can remain with you for many years to come and you may find that an education at your second-choice school still gets you into a great career in the future—and with less debt to pay off because they were willing to help foot a little more of the bill.
However, if you’re like most students, finances play a starring role in making your final decision about early application. As part of your decision process about ED, you should meet with your choice school's financial aid office as early as your junior year. You’ll be able to get an idea if the school is an economically viable choice or if it’s just too far out of the ballpark. Ask your parents to bring their tax forms so they can get an idea of their likely Expected Family Contribution, and you can find out ahead of time what financial aid you’re likely to receive if you submit an early application. By checking it out early on, you can avoid the wrenching disappointment of getting in, but not being able to go.
What will be your bottom line on early action?
If you’ve done your financial aid homework and have submitted your ED application, then hopefully, your first-pick school is as invested in you as you are in them, and will make an offer you can’t refuse. If you’re fortunate, your school may have offered some sort of early decision about financial aid as well, so you can make your final decision and move forward.
But unless getting into THE school is a do-or-die deal for you, take your time. Apply to your first-choice schools during the regular cycle (but still as early as possible) so you can weigh the financial aid packages that are offered to you and decide which route will be the best for you to take in the long run. Better yet, if the school you wish to apply to as an Early Decision applicant also offers options for getting early answers on financial aid packages, go for it! If you don’t get the answers you want, you'll still have time to apply to the other choice schools on your list.