Should You Apply Early Decision or Early Action When Financial Aid Matters?

How does early decision and financial aid interact with each other?

Source: Flickr user nowhere77.

Many students and families make difficult decisions when choosing whether to apply Early Decision or Early Action. Particularly, what kind of financial commitment are you making by applying during one of these windows? What if the college doesn’t offer you enough financial aid to make it an affordable option? How does the relationship between early decision and financial aid work?

Are you stuck with the bill?

As if establishing a list of realistic, appealing colleges isn’t stressful enough, you’ve got to factor in financial aid before determining whether or not you can make a commitment to a particular college, but this is not always an easy task.

You can use a tool like College Raptor or the school’s net price calculator to estimate what kind of financial aid you’ll get well before applying. But, of course, these are just estimates–you generally won’t know your true award until much later.

Because of this, it’s important to understand what your financial aid will be before making a firm commitment to the school of your choice.  

Before delving further, let’s first review some of the basic admissions lingo:

  • Early Decision (ED) – This is an early college admission deadline that carries with it early notification and a binding obligation to attend the school if you are admitted
  • Early Action – This is an early college admission deadline that carries early notification, but there is no obligation on the part of the student to commit to the school prior to the universal May 1 decision date.
  • Regular Decision – The date by which the majority of the applicant pool will apply. Students are generally notified in early Spring, and students must make a commitment by May 1.
  • Rolling Admission — Students may apply at their earliest convenience, usually beginning in the fall of the senior year.  Completed applications are reviewed as they are received, and decisions are mailed shortly thereafter.

Applying Early Decision when financial aid matters

There are some key things to know about applying ED:

  • If you are applying ED, this school likely has the means to get you an early financial aid package. You ensure that you can afford your dream school (generally requires filing the CSS profile)
  • Not sure if you can afford a school? You may want to consider not applying ED to give yourself more options
  • What if you do apply ED and you are accepted? You may be able to walk away or discuss the offer if the final cost is not affordable for your family
  • If you’re attempting to appeal for additional aid, you’ll want to make sure you have a backup plan. Pay close attention to deadlines for other schools so you can submit applications in time

There is a great debate about whether you should apply Early Decision if you don’t know if you can afford a school.

Some experts say if money is that big an issue perhaps you shouldn’t apply ED. Keep your options open. You may lose a certain amount of financial leverage if you put all of your eggs in one basket and commit to going somewhere without maintaining some sort of negotiating power.

It may be a scary proposition. But if you do apply ED and then find out that you can’t afford it, you may not be completely out of luck.

While an ED offer is binding, there’s one exception. If the financial aid package is not significant enough, you can reject the offer.

What if a college accepts and the financial aid package is insufficient? Can you go back to the school to explain your circumstances in the hopes of getting more funds? Well, you don’t have anything to lose by trying. As long as you still leave your options open to apply other places before their deadlines.

You may not have the finances at your ED school fully resolved before other schools’ admissions deadlines have come and gone, so be careful! As soon as you think that you may need a backup plan, start preparing to apply elsewhere.

Applying Early Action when financial aid matters

Early Action (non-binding) and early financial aid packages are a much murkier issue.

Here are some tips for those considering EA:

  • You may receive your EA acceptance well before receiving your financial aid award offer. However, different colleges have different policies.
  • Are you unsure whether you’ll be able to afford a college where you’re applying EA? Make sure to apply to other schools to give yourself options
  • With Early Action, colleges don’t require students to attend. You really have nothing to lose by keeping your options open, other than the cost of applications
  • Don’t confuse acceptance with affording attendance. Make sure you keep track of deadlines at other colleges. Don’t miss the opportunity to give yourself some other options

Some schools who offer an Early Action deadline (Fordham U., Northeastern U., Cal Tech., and Boston College, for example) will allow you to submit the CSS Profile close to the timing that the admission application is due so that you can get an early financial aid package, and potentially make an informed decision regarding affordability without having to wait until the Spring for a financial aid package.

Other schools, however, (MIT and Tulane U., for example) do not offer early financial aid packages for Early Action candidates. While you may have the benefit of knowing whether or not you’ve been admitted somewhere, you still won’t know if you can afford it until March or April.

So, in the case where you’re applying EA to a school, you’ll likely still want to submit some other applications–to more financially-safe colleges–as well.

Final tips for applying early when money matters

  • Be vigilantly aware of both admission and financial aid filing deadlines for both your ED/EA options, as well as any other colleges you’re considering
  • Keep deadlines organized on a spreadsheet or calendar because trying to remember multiple dates for multiple colleges can become confusing
  • Don’t close off any options if money matters–always try to leave yourself an “out” in case things don’t work out the way you hoped


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