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How does applying early decision impact financial aid?

December 17, 2018

Early decision applicants are accepted at higher rates than regular decision applicants - but some wonder whether they also may be leaving financial aid money on the table.

By applying early decision, a students commits to attending the college if admitted, and to withdrawing any outstanding applications to other schools. This may mean they are committing to a more expensive school as well - and giving up the chance to compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges and universities.

According to a NACAC study, 62% of Early Decision applicants were admitted to schools offering the option - whereas the overall selectivity rate of those schools was 50%. At many universities the difference in ED acceptance rate is even more dramatic, prompting savvy applicants who have a clear top choice to submit their application early.

If you’re considering it, here’s what you should know about financial aid and early decision.

You can still turn down the offer if you can’t afford it. Early decision is binding - meaning you promise you will attend if you are accepted - but there is one exception: financial reasons. If you receive your offer and cannot afford the cost, you can let the admissions office know and continue applying to other colleges. Make sure you have that option by checking that the deadlines of the other schools on your list come after the decision and award letter from your ED school.

It’s less likely to make a difference with the most selective colleges. Colleges that do not offer merit aid and base their awards purely on financial need are likely to have well-defined formulas for who gets what award. Those colleges are generally more generous with those students that can demonstrate they need the money via the FAFSA or CSS Profile.

You may receive less merit aid. Merit aid is generally used to attract great applicants to a school. Admissions officers add merit money to a financial aid offer hoping it will get great students to enroll in their college versus another. With ED, the college knows you really want to go there so they might not feel the need to sweeten the deal with as much merit money. They’ll also probably want to save their limited merit money for later in the cycle when it will make a real difference in their yield. Contact the school’s admissions office if you want to learn more about merit aid in early decision applications.

It will be hard to appeal for more financial aid. An ED offer is generally a ‘take it or leave it’ situation, and most students that apply ED are committed to going no matter the price. In fact, as a whole, nearly 90% of students admitted ED will go to the school that accepts them. (Unfortunately, this means that ED students tend to come from wealthier backgrounds.) Without other options to compare, you won’t have any other data points to negotiate your tuition. Colleges will expect you to have used their net price calculators before you apply. That said, there are some cases where it can still be done.

Should you apply early decision?

When considering early decision, make sure you do your homework to compare likely college pricing (Edmit can help!) before you apply. Pay attention to deadlines such as when to complete the FAFSA for early decision, as financial aid deadlines may be earlier than expected in the fall.

Above all, keep a level head and don’t forget the dollars and cents when you’re making your college list. While it’s tempting to go all in for that ‘dream school,’ this decision can follow you for a long time - so make sure you’re committing to an option that will make financial sense for you.