Students who apply to a college for “early decision” and who are accepted commit to enrolling in that school. Problem: These commitments are made before the students learn how much financial aid the school will provide. Result: These applicants may end up locked into a college that they cannot afford and lose the option of enrolling in a college that offers a better aid package. Note: Unlike “early decision” applicants, “early action” applicants typically do not commit to enroll if accepted.

Before applying to early decision: Use the “net price calculator” on the institution’s website to estimate how much aid you’re likely to receive. These estimates tend to be fairly accurate—often within $500. Also: Do not apply for early decision unless the school is the student’s top choice and the family is certain it can afford this cost estimate.

Good news: Not applying for early decision probably won’t significantly reduce the student’s odds of acceptance. Many colleges have much higher acceptance rates for early-decision applicants than for other applicants, spurring the widely held belief that early-decision applicants have an advantage. Reality: Early-decision applicants typically are stronger academically than later applicants and so are more likely to be accepted.

If the student accepted early decision and realizes he/she can’t afford the school, he should contact the college’s financial aid office…explain that the current aid offer is problematic…and request an increase. Provide details that show that the family’s actual financial situation is worse than it appears on the aid application—perhaps one of the parents recently lost his/her job, for example.

Ask to be released from the early-decision commitment if the aid package is not sufficiently increased. Colleges usually will do this upon request…and even if one refused, it almost certainly would not make a legal effort to enforce the commitment. 

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