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Financial Implications of Applying Early Decision

Wealthy students applying for college financial aid
Jessica Black College Coach Finance Consultant

Written by Jessica Blackon October 12th, 2023

My career in higher education administration began at a public state college when I was a work-study student at the financial aid office while pursuing my undergraduate degree. After getting my B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Business Administration, I worked for state government employment services. However, my true calling led me back to my roots in financial aid. As the Assistant Director of Financial Aid at a private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, I fostered educational access by overseeing a wide variety of daily operations. These included processing aid applications, establishing cross-departmental partnerships, matching scholars to endowment funding, and meticulously managing multiple funding streams for a diverse student population. Coming from a disadvantaged background as a Vietnamese immigrant and first-generation college graduate, my passion for improving student access to postsecondary educational funding runs deep.
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by Jessica Black, former financial aid officer at Lewis & Clark College The college admissions journey is rife with choices. One choice that often sparks both curiosity and apprehension is whether or not to apply to a college Early Decision (ED). Whether you’re a student eager to secure your spot at your dream school or a curious parent seeking insights, read on as we unravel the intricacies of ED admissions and shed light on the factors applicants should consider when pursuing this path. The early admissions cycle is subdivided into binding ED and non-binding Early Action (EA). The primary non-early admissions cycle is Regular Decision (RD). The availability of different admission tracks will vary depending on the institution. Schools that offer ED tend to be highly selective private colleges. The ED application track is best suited for students who have a clear and unwavering commitment to a particular college or university. It is designed for students who have thoroughly researched their top-choice institution and are confident that it perfectly aligns with their academic, personal, and career goals. ED applicants must be comfortable with the binding nature of the commitment, as it requires them to enroll in the institution if accepted. If a student is admitted by their ED school, they are expected to withdraw outstanding applications from all other schools and end their college search. This commitment is a signal for college admissions offices that the applicant is genuinely enthusiastic about the school. The ED deadline for admissions and financial aid applications is typically November 1. Schools release ED offers around mid-December. Unlike EA or RD where you have until May 1 to finalize your decision, ED applicants are required to make an enrollment commitment by mid-January. Schools are required to provide you with your financial aid offer before you are required to pay the enrollment deposit. Note that financial aid application deadlines and offer notification dates are likely to shift this year due to the FAFSA simplification process that has delayed release of the FAFSA until December. Most ED pools at selective institutions are highly competitive. Some colleges have a higher acceptance rate for ED applicants compared to other application pools, however, it may also be the case at some colleges that less merit aid is awarded during the ED round of admissions. What students should ask themselves before applying ED is whether their number one school would still remain their top choice if another school offered a substantial scholarship that would significantly reduce their out-of-pocket expenses. You can always reach out to the admissions office at a college or attend an information session if you have questions about the ED application cycle. Before applying ED:
  • Find out whether the school offers merit aid to ED applicants. Some highly selective institutions offer targeted merit-based scholarships to ED applicants or students who have met other early deadlines. Other colleges may not offer the top merit awards to students who they know are committed to enrolling if admitted.
  • If you are seriously considering applying ED, it would benefit you to use the school’s net price calculator (NPC). Save the NPC results showing your estimated annual out-of-pocket costs so you can compare it to the actual aid offer. You can find NPCs on schools’ financial aid websites.
  • Ask the admissions office for a merit “pre-read” or “early read.” This is when a school reviews a student’s qualifications and their family’s financial situation to make a prediction about the level of merit-based and/or need-based aid that can be expected before a student formally applies. See if the school is willing to disclose to you the typical percentage of ED students who receive merit assistance and the average merit amount that is awarded.
  • Inquire if the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile is required to be considered for merit-based scholarships. Although financial aid applications are typically used to evaluate need-based aid eligibility, some schools may still require submission of these forms for merit aid consideration. Additionally, there are state-specific grants that may also require a FAFSA to determine eligibility.
Should a student who applies for financial aid not be offered an award that makes attendance possible, the student may decline the offer of admission and be released from the ED commitment. Ultimately, the ED application track should be reserved for students who have a clear top-choice school, and whose families are comfortable with paying the full price over four years should the school not award any merit or need-based aid.

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