The Early Admission Bird Gets the Worm, But Not Always the One it Prefers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — In December, college applicants who have gone the early action or early decision route are likely to be more fixated on cell phones and in-boxes than usual. Word from the colleges should be coming down soon.

There are two types of early admission: early decision and early action. Early decision involves a commitment to attend. Early action does not.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisor’s Network, recommends against early decision.

“The problem with early decision is that you’re making a commitment to attend before knowing about the financial aid package,” he said, “while shutting out colleges that might give you a better deal.” 

“There’s no up-front pricing,” he added. “You don’t know how much the college will cost until after you are admitted. The net price calculators are a step in the direction of providing early information about the net price, but the information it provides is only an estimate.”

Most schools will let you out of an early decision commitment if you seriously can’t go. But by then it may be too late if, in the pursuit of a dream school, you haven’t applied to other colleges. While Kantrowitz said that early admission applicants seem to get the same types and amounts of financial aid as students in the college’s regular admission pool, “early admission students tend to self-select into a more talented and wealthier group, and so are more likely to be admitted and less likely to get financial aid.” The unknown quantity, which may not become known until later in the process, is the effect that aid, or lack of it, will have on the need for student loans.

Kantrowitz recommends applying to multiple colleges to increase the chances of securing aid.

“In addition to the usual mix of safety, reach and good match schools, students should also apply to at least one financial aid safety school," he said. "A financial aid safety school is a college that not only will admit the student, but where the student could afford to attend even if he or she got no financial aid other than loans.”

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The Princeton Review’s “Early Decision – Financial Aid” Website counsels applicants to follow the money—something they may not be able to do until it’s too late.

While the benefit is that you can be admitted to your first choice before the holidays, “[y]ou must wait until January 1st to apply for federal student aid,” the Princeton Review said. “And while you wait, application deadlines for other schools start to pass. When your award finally arrives, if it doesn't adequately cover your need, your options are few.” Freshman classes at other schools will be filling up, and the aid pool will be getting smaller.

This highlights the benefit of early action. “Early action is non–binding,” said the Review. “You get an acceptance, but still have time to compare several award packages.”

The College Confidential Website’s “Ask the Dean” column by Sally Rubenstone identifies the importance of award formulas based on family income and assets as an aid package barometer.

“This package will be the same whether a candidate applies under an early- or regular-decision plan,” she wrote. Some schools, she noted, can offer more in grants and less in loans to sought-after applicants.

College Confidential mentions the appeal process as an option. If you get in early but don’t like the aid, “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.”

But the best merit aid awards may be saved for uncommitted students.

“At the majority of colleges, merit-aid policies are vague,” College Confidential said. “Websites 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.”

Still, College Confidential states that it’s typically easier to be admitted by early decision than in the regular pool.

“Colleges grab bird-in-hand applicants while realizing that they may not be as strong as some who will turn up down the road,” College Confidential said. The circumstances vary from school to school, but most want to lock in a slice of the next freshman class during the early-decision period.

--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet 

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