Preparing for College

Early Decision Aid Issues

Question: My son is determined to apply Early Decision to a university that would be considered slightly below Ivy. He feels that he is borderline and that this would greatly improve his chances. My concern as a middle-income parent, who will be paying the majority of the college expenses, is the commitment. ,If my son is accepted, will I receive the school's aid package at the time of acceptance? If I feel that I still can't afford it, what are my options? Finally, is the Early Decision commitment for four years or could you transfer after one?

Several things are possible.

First, many colleges include what is known as a "baseline gift," "minimum gift," or merit-based award right in the acceptance letter. Most often this "gift" award is need-blind, derived solely from the unique formula each college might use to determine merit award levels.

Others wait until all financial aid information is in hand, if the student even filed for aid. If your son applied Early Decision, the school is obligated to provide the admission decision, and, if applicable, the financial-aid award within a certain period of time. Since schools differ slightly in their own ED deadline and notification policies, most colleges wrap up all decisions and financial aid awarding prior to January 1 (most have strayed from the "national-deadline," suggested calendar dates and practice what's right for their own institution.)

Since some schools do have differential packaging practices for ED versus Regular Decision students, and you won't be able to tell how much more or less you would receive for each application option within the hundreds of schools you might consider, ask ahead if the college will commit to meeting your true, demonstrated financial need. Do not apply without having some written assurance that this will happen.

Also, make sure you know the components of what is called "meeting need," because an "award" typically may contain scholarships, grants, loans, work-study, and other options. What you may consider "unaffordable" and what you might not be "willing" to do financially may be different.