Is Early Decision Binding When Financial Aid Seems Inadequate?

Question: Is an Early Decision admission offer binding if the college concludes you can afford to pay the tuition/room & board without aid, but you believe you cannot? For example, if the college concludes our Expected Family Contribution is above the cost based on our FASFA or CSS Profile, are we bound no matter how much we believe can afford?

If a student applies for financial aid at the time that he or she submits the Early Decision application, and then the college financial aid officials determine that the family does NOT qualify for aid … or qualifies for less aid than the family feels is required … the student canbail out of the “binding" Early Decision commitment without penalty, as long as this is done promptly. You, as a family, are the ones who determine how much aid is necessary to make a college “affordable," regardless of what the EFC figures … or the college officials … may tell you.

Over the years, “The Dean" has been irked by the number of prospective students who have been warned away from applying Early Decision (by their college counselors, by college admission officials, and, often, by the “grapevine"), with the insistence that ED is off limits for those who can't pay full freight. Parents and students are often told that it's unwise to make a commitment to a college without knowing for sure if it will be financially feasible, and that anyone who requires financial assistance to enroll should wait until spring in order to compare all need-based and merit-based aid offers.

Yet, by following this advice, economically disadvantaged and even middle-class applicants have shut themselves out from the admissions-odds boost that an ED application often provides. The Dean finds it unfair to offer this boost only to those who are already enjoying the many pluses of wealth and privilege. In my own application-reading days, I saw that, at a “need-conscious" college, sometimes borderline applicants with high need would be pushed into the “In" pile in the ED round while similar candidates would NOT make the cut in the Regular Decision round. This happens because the college folks figure that they'd rather offer a hefty chunk of their financial aid budget to a student who is eager to enroll rather than to one who might not even show up in September. Moreover, their finaid coffers are usually flusher in the fall than they are in the spring.

There can be a difference between a family's EFC and what the family decides is truly manageable. Of course, this could be because some families view their Cancun vacations, Lexus SUV's, and Cape Cod cottages as imperatives, and they can't quite figure out how to pay the tuition bills on top of all of these “must-haves." But, frequently, the EFC doesn't fully factor in the cost of living in the priciest cities (even for those who live modestly) or the many non-standard expenses (e.g., supporting relatives outside of the U.S.) that families may encounter.

So, although I'm sometimes swimming against the tide, “The Dean" is a fan of Early Decision for students with financial need, with the understanding that these students aren't obligated to attend if the money isn't adequate.

But, conversely, The Dean is also irked by the increasing (?) number of families who seem to use ED financial aid applications to game the system. For instance, take the kid who has no prayer of receiving need-based aid yet applies ED to a top-choice school, also applying for aid, although that college's Net Price Calculator has already suggested that the EFC exceeds the Cost of Attendance. (In other words, the family should expect bupkis.) But, meanwhile, this same student has submitted an application at an Early Action college that offers merit aid. So then the family waits for the outcomes. If the kid gets into both places, with the EA school being a more favored choice and/or offering some merit bucks, then the parents cry poor to the ED school and back away, even though they went into the process not actually expecting any aid but wanting both an admissions-chances bump and an escape clause.

So, if your child hopes to benefit from the Early Decision boost at a front-runner college and you are genuinely concerned that you will be locked into a commitment you cannot afford to make, here are the steps I suggest:

1. Do the Net Price calculator for the prospective ED school (every college is required to post one on the Web site) to see if the amount you'll have to pay is at least roughly commensurate with what you think you can afford. If your family's financial picture is atypical and thus an online tool can't accurately assess your situation, call the financial aid office at the ED college and explain that you have extenuating circumstances and would like an “early read" in order to determine if ED is a wise route for your child. Most colleges will comply.

2. If it's clear that you will be expected to pay far more than is affordable for your family, you may want to discourage the ED application. In some cases, however, you may be able to successfully appeal your aid award, if your child is admitted via ED but not sufficiently aided. However, as noted above, families with exceptional circumstances should try to ask in advance of the ED application about how adjustments might be made in light of these anomalies.

3. If your child IS admitted to the ED college but the aid award is insufficient by whatever standard YOU choose to apply, then –as noted above—the student can decline the offer of admission but it must be done in the timely manner. You can also take a shot at an appeal before saying no. (Expect to provide documentation to validate extenuating circumstances or financial obligations that might not be on the FAFSA or PROFILE.) I have seen families try to draw out this process while they wait for other admission verdicts (and potential merit aid awards) to roll in, but this is not ethical.

Bottom line: It is YOUR assessment of affordability, and not the college's, which determines if a student will accept an Early Decision offer of admission. Contrary to popular belief, the student won't be blacklisted at other colleges for turning down an ED spot for financial reasons. Don't be scared away from ED by those who tell you that it is only for students with no price-tag concerns. Yet, on the other hand, you should probably steel yourself for a barrage of bad karma if you enter into the Early Decision fray knowing full well that your child will never get the money from the ED school that you are convinced that you require and is likely to walk away from an acceptance.