Preparing for College

Early Decision at Smith for Financial Aid Applicant?

Question: I'm very interested in Smith College and have basically fallen in love with everything I've found out about it. Based on the outcome of the visit I'm making in September, I'd like to apply Early Decision, but I have one reservation: Financial Aid. FA is very important for my family, because basically, we can't afford college, period. If I get in, on one hand, ED would give me more time to apply for scholarships and I'd know earlier exactly how much money I'd need, but on the other hand, I wouldn't be able to compare financial aid packages from different schools. I'm very torn at which would be the best way to go...Regular or Early decision. Any insight?

I worked at Smith for years (and still live around the corner from campus) so I do have some insider observations to share. In most cases, an Early Decision application will boost admission odds, so it can be a wise plan, especially for borderline applicants. But for those who are concerned about costs, it does prohibit comparing aid awards before making a final choice.

Keep in mind, however, that even though Early Decision is officially "binding," if you are a candidate for financial aid, and if your tentative aid award (which you will receive from Smith at about the time you get your ED verdict) is insufficient, then you can back out of the ED commitment without penalty. (The aid award that you receive in December will be based on your family's 2008 taxes, so it's only a preliminary award. But if your family's economic picture hasn't changed a lot in 2009, it should be fairly accurate.)

Note, too, that Smith is "Need Conscious." In other words, admission officials do consider your financial aid requirements when making admission decisions. Over the years, I've seen many borderline applicants with high financial need get admitted during the Early round, while similar borderline applicants with high need who apply via Regular Decision may initially get put in the "In" pile but then get bumped to the "Out" stack if looks like too many high-need applicants are about to be accepted. So even though there are some good financial-aid reasons to apply in the Regular round, at Smith in particular the ED candidates get a definite advantage. Thus, if you think you may be just a borderline candidate at Smith, this may sway you to aim for ED. But if you're pretty certain that you'll be a top candidate, then the ED advantage won't be as critical.

So what should you do? Here are my thoughts:

STEP 1) If you haven't done this already, ask your parents how much they think they can afford to pay each year to send you to college. (Include everything ... tuition, room, board, books, travel, etc.)

STEP 2) Next, play around with one of the online EFC (Expected Family Contribution) calculators, like this one on the College Board Web site. (You should have a parent and last year's tax return handy when you try this).

(You will be asked to choose between "Federal Methodology" and "Institutional Methodology." You can try "Both," but--for Smith--look at the "Institutional Methodology" results.)

If your family income hasn't gone way up or way down since last year, this calculator should give you a rough idea of how much colleges will expect your family to pay for your education each year. Does the number provided by the calculator seem feasible to your family? Is it in line with the amount that you came up with in Step 1? If yes, then you might want to go ahead and apply Early Decision. Smith should provide you with enough financial aid so that your family will not have to pay more each year than the amount of your EFC. Some of the aid you get might be in the form of loans, which is not great, but Smith has a record of giving a lot of grant money, too. (Grant is the good stuff, that doesn't have to be repaid.)

Of course, chances are, if you are strong enough to get into Smith, there are other colleges out there that would give you a lot of merit aid --- places you you may be able to attend for far less than the cost of Smith. So you also have to decide how much that matters. In other words, if Smith offers you enough money to enable you to attend without overburdening your family, is that okay, or is it more important to get as much money as possible even if it's not from your dream school?

Bottom line: Smith is expensive, and not everyone loves the single-sex community. But the majority of students (and alums) are very pleased with their choice, and most feel that they definitely got their money's worth when it comes to small classes, faculty attention, research opportunities, and an alma mater that will help open doors for them after graduation.

Good luck, whatever you decide, and let me know if you want some suggestions for cheap, student-friendly restaurants when you visit in the fall.