Advertiser disclosure

Early Decision and Financial Aid

Here’s the situation: you visit your dream college and absolutely fall in love. This is it. This is where you want to spend your next four years. At home, you browse through the glossy brochure complete with testimonials of students and beautiful shots of the campus. On the last page, your eyes see the number next to tuition, room, and board. This is when reality hits in: college is really expensive. This is a tough situation as you were planning on applying to this school Early Decision. However, Early Decision is binding, so you have to go if you are admitted. On top of this, everyone says that you get an “advantage” if you apply ED. What if you can’t pay? Does this mean you will “miss out” on the advantage that Early Decision provides?

Early Decision and Early Action (hereafter referred to as ED and EA) policies have become really popular.  On the surface, it is a great deal: apply to your dream college early, you get in early, and you don’t have to worry about sending out dozens of applications.  However, what if you are unsure whether you can afford your dream college?  Are you expecting to receive merit-based scholarships?

Related: When should I apply for college?

What is the difference between Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA)?

Typically there are two types of ED and EA respectively: EDI, EDII, EA, and Single Choice EA:

  • Early Decision I (ED1) is a binding admission policy.  You apply with the understanding that if admitted, you will enroll in a specific college or university.  The deadlines for ED are earlier than the regular decision deadline and the benefit is that you will be notified of your decision sooner.  If you are admitted under a binding early decision program, you must withdraw all of your other applications.
  • Early Decision 2 is the same as Early Decision 1, but with a later application deadline.  It is also binding and you are notified earlier.
  • Early Action is a non-binding admissions program.  Unlike Early Decision students do not have an obligation to attend a school if they are admitted.  They can submit all of their other applications and enjoy the benefit of an early notification for their EA choices.
  • Restricted and Single Choice Early Action is a subset of Early Action that is offered by certain colleges. These Early Action options include an earlier application deadline and notification date, but have certain restrictions. For instance, students are generally not able to apply Restricted or Single Choice Early Action and Early Decision together. If you are considering applying Restricted or Single Choice Early Action, you should carefully read the college’s policy. If you have any questions, you can also reach out to your school counselor, college access counselor, or a college admissions officer at the college in question.

The financial aid ramifications vary greatly depending upon the early admissions program you are applying under.  When in doubt, call the admissions office of the school in question.  They will help you clarify any details about their schools’ early admissions policies. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the impact of binding Early Decision on financial aid.

Learn more: Everything you need to know about early action vs early decision

How can this affect my financial aid?

If you are looking to receive a merit scholarship, it is not advisable to apply under a binding early program.  Merit aid is very competitive and many schools do not offer guaranteed merit aid. No matter how impressive your credentials, merit aid is not a given at most schools.

If you are looking for need based aid it is HIGHLY recommended that you complete the Net Price Calculator for the college that you are considering for binding Early Decision. This will give you a good estimate of what your need-based financial aid package looks like.

Bottom line: if you are seriously looking for any scholarships or if need-based aid may not be enough, early decision is not the wisest move.  Most colleges will certainly allow you to be released from your ED agreement if the college is simply not affordable.  The downside of this is that you will no longer be considered for admissions.

What happens if my financial aid does NOT turn out to be enough?

This is a good question. So let’s fast forward to December and say that you got into your Early Decision school. However, your financial aid is DRASTICALLY different from what the Net Price Calculator. In these situations, most (if not all) schools will release you from your Early Decision agreement and the applicant pool so you can apply to other colleges.

Related: What to do if your financial aid isn’t enough

So who is Early Decision for?

ED is for students who are 100% (not 99.9%) that a particular school is right for them.  These students should also be comfortable with what the college will look like financially. The good news is that the Net Price Calculator can give you an estimate of a need-based financial aid package. However, if you are truly relying on merit aid as well, you should probably not apply Early Decision and instead, but instead, cast a wider net of applications.

Also read: Top financial aid questions you should be asking

Frequently asked questions about Early Decision and financial aid

What happens if you apply early decision and change your mind?

It depends on the circumstances involved. There may be reasons that justify a refusal of your ED admission. Keep reading to learn more about  changing your mind about an ED acceptance

Does early decision give you an advantage?

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), colleges with Early Admission and Early Action accept at 61% compared to 49%, for regular decision. 

If I am accepted Early Decision and still can't afford the cost of that college, what are my options?

In that case, you could turn down the college acceptance offer. We highly recommend only applying ED if you have done your research (use that Net Price Calculator!). Also, make sure you have a short list of back up colleges that don’t violate your ED application.
just in case.