Do Early-Decision Financial Aid Packages Change After Frosh Year?

Question: If I apply Early Decision, am admitted, and I accept the financial aid package I'm given, what happens in the second year? Is the financial aid package the same? What if my financial situation changes?

First of all, if you apply Early Decision, depending on how early indeed your application deadline is, then the aid package you receive may be just a tentative one. For instance, if your ED deadline is in November, your projected aid award will be based on the previous year's family tax figures and not on the current year's, which is the one that officially "counts." So, if your family circumstances have changed significantly, the package that arrives with your ED acceptance may not be all that close to what you should really expect. This doesn't happen a lot, but it certainly can.

Secondly, should you be awarded a financial aid package that you really can't live with, it's okay to turn down the offer of admission. It won't be considered reneging on your ED commitment. However, in order to be ethical, you should only do this if the aid offer you receive is really out of range for you. Don't say no to an ED acceptance simply because you'd like a bit more dough than you got or because you're starting to change your mind about your top-choice school.

If you do turn down an ED offer for financial reasons, you can still be reconsidered as part of the Regular Decision pool, but there's no guarantee that you'll get in again ... nor that you'll receive as much aid as you did the first time.

Before you apply to any college--whether it's via Early Decision or any other decision plan--it's always wise to ask each financial aid office what you just asked us. That is, will your aid package remain consistent over four years? Colleges have different philosophies when it comes to this issue. Some practice what is called "Front Loading." They give entering freshmen a lot more aid than they'll receive in subsequent years. Sometimes, too, the bottom line may remain the same but the grant/loan ratio changes. After your first year, you get less grant (the good stuff that you don't have to pay back) and more loan (the money that you do have to return). Because colleges vary in their policies, always ask.

If your own family's situation changes, then indeed your aid package can change, too--even at colleges that would otherwise give you roughly the same deal over four years, had nothing varied on the home front. If your family earnings go way up, you can count on your aid package going down. On the other hand, if your family's income plummets (e.g., a parent loses a job), you should get more aid to make up for it, but it's not a given. Feel free to ask financial aid officers what their typical practices are in such situations, especially if you see a change of family fortunes on the horizon.