Early Decision at Penn for Financial Aid Candidate?

Question: I read your thread on the ED with financial aid topic. I'm currently a sophomore in high school and I'm not sure what would work best for me. I would need aid for a college like UPenn, but I'm not sure if applying ED with financial aid would help me with my chances. Could you give me some advice on this?

Also, are schools like UPenn really need blind? Would applying there with financial aid decrease chances? Thanks so much!

“The Dean" has addressed this topic a lot already but there is still confusion and misconception out there (quite a bit of disagreement, too) so it's worth discussing again (and again).

Students who need financial aid (or even those who don't qualify but who worry about the high cost of college) are often told that Early Decision is not for them. “Don't make a binding commitment," they are warned. “Wait until the Regular Decision round so you can compare all your financial aid or merit scholarship offers."

That's sound enough advice (and it's actually what my own son did), but it does disadvantage students who have a “dream college," when that dream school offers Early Decision.

An ED application almost always provides a significant acceptance-odds boost. It's the old “Bird in Hand" theory. The college admission folks don't want to pass up a rock-solid “sure thing" for a potentially (but not necessarily) better “maybe." And the University of Pennsylvania is perfect example, Admission officials at Penn are eager to admit students who really want to be at Penn rather than those whose hearts are set on competitor colleges like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Certainly little says “I love you" to a college more than an ED application does. So it's no wonder that Penn admits a sizable chunk of its freshman class in the early round.

As you can imagine, many of the thousands of students who apply to Penn look a lot alike on paper: Their transcripts are full of top classes, grades and test scores. They are school and community leaders and/or outstanding athletes. So a highly qualified Penn aspirant will be vying with many others who boast similar credentials. Those who have the luxury of an Early Decision bid without fearing the Ivy price tag will get a leg up on the competition. It does seem unfair that middle-class and disadvantaged students who are concerned about costs may lose out to the more well-heeled candidates who aren't. But many don't have to.

Penn really is need-blind. Seeking aid will not work against you. So, when your senior year rolls around, if Penn continues to be your top-choice college, you might want to consider Early Decision to give yourself some extra ammunition. And even at colleges that are NOT need-blind, an Early Decision application can really help. Such schools prefer to spend their financial-aid dollars on applicants who are likely to show up in September. Thus applying ED to a “need-conscious" college may bump you to the front of the line, ahead of candidates with similar profiles and financial need who opted for Regular Decision.

But, before applying ED to Penn, you should follow these steps:

  1. Sit down with your parents and discuss how much your family can afford to spend on your college education each year for four years without taking out hefty loans or living on Fancy Feast.
  1. Go to . Play around with Penn's “Net Price Calculator" to determine your annual “Expected Family Contribution." (EFC). If your family's financial situation is reasonably straightforward, the Net Price Calculator will give you at least a ballpark sense of how much your will have to pay Penn each year. But if your situation is atypical, you can call the Penn financial aid office and ask if you can get an early estimate of your EFC from an actual human being before you apply.
  1. Compare your answer to Question 1 with the EFC in Question 2. If your approximate EFC seems affordable, then you might want to consider an Early Decision application to Penn, if it continues to be your favorite. If you are admitted in December but your aid offer isn't what you anticipated, you will have a couple weeks to appeal it. However, if the appeal is unsuccessful, you may have to turn down the offer of admission. It's painful to do this but you can do it without penalty. A “binding" Early Decision commitment isn't truly binding if the financial aid doesn't work. (And YOU get to decide what figure works.) Even so, it's not wise to apply ED to Penn–or anywhere–if you know in advance that your aid offer isn't likely to mesh with your actual financial requirements.

If you apply Early Decision to Penn (or to any other college) after determining that your financial aid estimate should make it affordable, you will, of course, be passing up the opportunity to compare bottom-line costs among several colleges in the spring, and you may not end up at the least expensive school on your list. But, on the other hand, if there's a college such as Penn that you really want to attend and if you find out that the cost is manageable (even if not the best price tag out there), then don't be discouraged by guidance counselors, teachers, parents, or friends who insist that Early Decision is only for the wealthy. Rich, poor, or in the middle, an Early Decision application will help you at almost every college … whether that college is need-blind or not. If you can enroll at a college that feels like a wonderful fit for you, and if the cost won't keep you (and your parents) up at night, then you might not want to worry about whether you should have chosen a place that's cheaper.

I hope I've clarified a tricky situation. You're wise to be thinking ahead, before it's time to climb into the college admissions quagmire with both feet!