Applying for College? Don’t Decide Too Fast…

By Staff

Early admission applicants know exactly what school they want to go to. But they may give universities an opportunity to exploit that single-minded ambition by delivering less aid than anticipated. Would-be students may not know how much they’re getting until it’s too late.

There are two types of early admission: early decision and early action. Early decision involves a commitment to attend. Early action does not.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisor’s Network, recommends against early decision. “The problem with early decision is that you’re making a commitment to attend before knowing about the financial aid package,” he told MainStreet, while shutting out colleges that might give you a better deal.

“There’s no up-front pricing,” he says. You don’t know how much the college will cost until after you are admitted. The net price calculators are a step in the direction of providing early information about the net price, but the information it provides is only an estimate.”

Most schools will let you out of an early decision commitment if you seriously can’t go. But by then it may be too late if, in the pursuit of a dream school, you haven’t applied to other colleges. While Kantrowitz says that early admission applicants seem to get the same types and amounts of financial aid as students in a college’s regular admission pool, “early admission students tend to self-select into a more talented and wealthier group, and so are more likely to be admitted and less likely to get financial aid.”

Kantrowitz recommends applying to multiple colleges to increase the chances of securing aid. “In addition to the usual mix of safety, reach and good match schools, students should also apply to at least one financial aid safety school,” he said. “A financial aid safety school is a college that not only will admit the student, but where the student could afford to attend even if he or she got no financial aid other than loans.”

While the benefit is that you can be admitted to your first choice before the holidays there is a distinct drawback: “You must wait until January 1 to apply for federal student aid. And while you wait, application deadlines for other schools start to pass. When your award finally arrives, if it doesn’t adequately cover your need, your options are few.” Freshman classes at other schools will be filling up, and the aid pool will be getting smaller.

This highlights the benefit of early action. “Early action is non–binding,” says Princeton Review. “You get an acceptance, but still have time to compare several award packages.”

The College Confidential Website’s “Ask the Dean” column by Sally Rubenstone stresses the importance of award formulas based on family income and assets as an aid package barometer. “This package will be the same whether a candidate applies under an early- or regular-decision plan,” she writes. Some schools can offer more in grants and less in loans to sought-after applicants. Since early applicants are already sure-things, the deals will likely be fewer.

College Confidential mentions the appeal process as an option. If you get in early but don’t like the aid, “you are free to appeal the award. Colleges don’t like to lose admitted students, and you may find that, with a bit of polite and appreciative cajoling, you can get your pot sweetened after all.”

But the best merit aid awards may be saved for uncommitted students. “At the majority of colleges, merit-aid policies are vague,” College Confidential says. “Web sites and brochures make ambiguous proclamations like ‘awards are given to the top applicants in our pool.’ Students and parents can’t tell if they’re in the running – and how much they’ll receive if they are – until decision letters show up in the spring.”

Still, College Confidential says it’s typically easier to be admitted by early decision than in the regular pool. “Colleges grab bird-in-hand applicants while realizing that they may not be as strong as some who will turn up down the road,” adding that. “Most enrollment managers want to lock in a certain percentage of the freshman class during the early-decision period.”