Paying for College

Financial Aid and Early Decision

Question: I am a parent who is wondering if a college may cut the amount of the aid package offered to a student who applies ED knowing that, once accepted, the student is bound to attend? Or do they reward ED by offering more early?

The answer to your question is a resounding "It depends." That's probably not the response you were looking for, but unfortunately--just like so many other aspects of the admission process--the way that financial assistance decisions are made for early applicants varies from college to college.

Let's start with need-based aid. Most college officials will contend that the aid they award is based on a formula, and that it's a family's income and assets that determine an aid package, so that this package will be the same whether a candidate applies under an early- or regular-decision plan. At many schools, this is largely true, but some colleges may "sweeten the pot" (i.e., provide more grant and less loan) to students they want to woo. Since early applicants are already sure-things, then they may not benefit from this wooing.

On the other hand, if your child is admitted early, but you're not happy with the aid awarded, you are free to appeal the award. Colleges don't like to lose admitted students, and you may find that, with a bit of polite and appreciative cajoling, you can get your pot sweetened after all.

As for merit aid, some colleges are very clear about their merit-aid policies. You'll even find specific information posted on their Web sites that explains merit-aid amounts and criteria. When the policies are that clear-cut, then merit aid will be the same for early and regular candidates.

More commonly, however, the best merit aid awards may be saved for uncommitted students. Rarely is there ever a financial "reward" for students who apply early, though even here there is no consistency. Some colleges offer merit aid only to students who submit all their paperwork by a certain early date.

At the majority of colleges, merit-aid policies are vague. Web sites and brochures make ambiguous proclamations like "awards are given to the top applicants in our pool." Students and parents can't tell if they're in the running--and how much they'll receive if they are--until decision letters show up in the spring. This is why many families in search of aid decide to eschew early-decision plans in order to have several aid offers to compare.

There is, however, one benefit for students seeking aid who apply early to colleges that are not need blind. Typically, it's easier to be admitted early decision than in the regular pool. That's where the "reward" kicks in. Colleges grab bird-in-hand applicants while realizing that they may not be as strong as some who will turn up down the road. Most enrollment managers want to lock in a certain percentage of the freshman class during the early-decision period. Thus, a borderline student may be accepted early and will then receive whatever aid the college's formula determines is appropriate. That same candidate might not get in at all under a regular-decision plan because a similarly borderline applicant requiring less aid will be admitted instead. (You follow? It's complicated, eh?)

Sometimes, when a family needs financial aid and is wavering on the early-decision route, we point out that there are two philosophies, and neither is the "right" one. You can decide in advance how much your family can really afford to contribute each year, and if the ED college meets that need, then you can accept an offer of admission, even if it's not the very best deal you might make. If not, you're off the hook and can politely decline without penalty. Alternately, you can play out the string, forego the ED admission boost at a top-choice school, and hopefully have a range of aid offers to stack up against one another in the spring.

Finally, if you're wondering if the colleges on your child's list offer better financial deals to regular-decision candidates than they do to early applicants, the best thing to do is to simply ask. Of course, once you get your answer, you'll have to read between the lines and decide if you're really getting the straight scoop.