Should your child apply early decision to college?
This is the time of year when high school seniors aiming for more selective to elite colleges and universities must decide if they will apply early decision.
When students submit an early decision application, they promise that they will attend if the institution accepts them. A student accepted via early decision must withdraw all other college applications.
Early Decision Gamble
Unfortunately, students must make this ED commitment before they know what kind of financial aid or merit award the school might provide.
Because students are supposed to commit without this essential financial information, the ED route chiefly benefits wealthy families who can pay regardless of whether or not they are happy with the award package.
Early Decision Advantage
It’s easy to see why early decision is so popular.
Teenagers enjoy a significant admission advantage at many schools that offer early decision.
Colleges provide the admission advantage to ED applications because they want to lock in early as many incoming freshmen as they can. With so many students applying to large numbers of colleges, ED is a way for institutions to better control their admissions process.
You can discover if there is an early decision or early action advantage at a particular institution by heading to the College Board’s website.
I’m using American University to illustrate what you’ll discover because I don’t know of any other school where the ED admission advantage is so massive.
Type in the name of the institution in the College Board’s search box.
Click on the school’s Applying link which is located in the left-hand column.
At the top of the Applying page, you’ll see the acceptance statistics for regular decision, early action and early decision applicants. You’ll also see the wait list stats.
The most recent acceptance rate for regular applications at American University was 31.5%. In contrast, the ED acceptance rate was a whopping 81.2%.
You’ll have to do your own math to generate the acceptance figures.
Another Early Decision Resource
Rather than researching schools individually, you can head to College Transitions, a college consulting firm based in Georgia that provides admission advice to families across the country.
College Transitions has compiled these admission figures for you. You’ll also find many other important college statistics in the firm’s Dataverse resource section.
Here is a sampling of College Transitions ED/EA list:
Should your child apply early decision?
Every year I get emails from parents who wonder if they should risk applying ED if they are going to need financial aid or merit scholarships.
There is no one right answer to this because you need to appreciate whether you are seeking need-based aid and/or merit scholarships and how generous a specific institution is with its aid policy.
American University and Early Decision
Let’s take a look at American University. This isn’t a school that is generous with its financial aid. According to College Board statistics, only 12% of students who have demonstrated financial need get their full financial need met.
The average need-based aid award at American University is $29,118, but the tuition and room/board is $64,769. And that doesn’t count transportation, books and miscellaneous expenses.
What’s more, the $29,118 figure is what the average award was to students who ended up attending. Add in the offers to applicants who walked away and the average award would certainly be lower.
For families looking for merit scholarships, American’s average merit award is just $13,347, which is a pittance compared to the price.
Should a family go ahead and apply ED to American University when the odds of getting accepted are so high, but the price tag could also be too high?
Net Price Calculators and Early Decision
To answer the ED question for American U. or any other school, families must use the institution’s net price calculator.
For those who don’t know what a net price calculator is, here is a quick description:
A net price calculator will provide a personal estimate of what a school will cost after any grants and scholarships from the institution itself are deducted from the price tag along with any applicable state and federal grants. A good calculator will ask for information such as the following…
- Parent and student incomes and assets
- Number in college
- Parent marital status
- Home equity (most schools don’t require this)
- Size of the household.
- Student’s GPA, test scores, class rank (won’t be asked if school doesn’t provide merit aid)
The federal government mandates that schools post a net price calculator on its website, but most families unfortunately don’t even know this invaluable tool exists.
For those concerned about cost, the use of a net price calculator is essential before applying ED anywhere.
But here’s the bad news…
Unfortunately, about half of the nation’s colleges and universities use lousy calculators that are just about useless. These pathetic calculators use a free federal template that ask the users few questions.
It’s a good bet that the calculator is a poor one if it takes about a minute or less to use. Another tip-off is that the calculator won’t inquire about family’s assets and only asks for a household income range rather than requiring figures from the parents’ tax return.
Most selective schools do not use the terrible calculator offered by the federal government. One of the private institutions that relies on the faulty federal template, however, is American University’s net price calculator.
This makes applying to American U. via early decision even more of a crap shoot.
Applying Early Decision to Georgetown University
In contrast to the American U. decision, applying to elite schools with excellent financial aid doesn’t have to be so dicey. I’m using Georgetown University, which is also located in Washington DC, as an example.
For a family who has financial need, Georgetown U. says it meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for 100% of its financial aid students.
On the other hand, Georgetown, like most of the highest ranked universities, doesn’t provide any merit scholarships. So if you won’t qualify for any need-based aid, you will be required to pay full price.
Georgetown has a good calculator so you will know if this school is affordable before applying early decision. If the price is too high, look for other schools.
If a student needs financial aid, I don’t think it’s much of a risk to apply to elite schools like Georgetown that offer excellent financial aid packages. If a college has pledged to meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of all its students, I believe it will usually be safe to apply.
Walking Away from an ED Acceptance
What if a child applies early decision and gets a lousy financial aid package?
As a practical matter, no school can force a child to attend. If the financial aid isn’t adequate you should talk to the school to seek more assistance and if that doesn’t work you can walk away.