Early Decision College Applications
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
October 16, 2020
It’s college application season! When it comes to deadlines, colleges throw around several terms for when the application is due–early decision, early action, regular decision, and rolling admissions to name a few. Some colleges get even more creative with terms like “restricted early action” and others. In this blog, we wanted to take a closer look at early decision or ED.
What is early decision?
When your student made their college list, was there one college that stood head and shoulders above the rest? If that college said “yes,” would your student even need to apply anywhere else? If there is a college on the list like that and that college offers an early decision deadline, then you MIGHT want to consider submitting the application for early decision consideration.
Early decision deadlines can range from mid-October to early December. Early decision is a binding agreement between the college and the student. If the college accepts the student under early decision, then the student will withdraw their applications from other colleges.
Students can only submit one application for early decision consideration. They can not submit early decision applications to more than one college. (They can submit early action applications in multiple places.)
What is the benefit to submitting early decision?
Statistics have shown that ED applicants have higher acceptance rates than regular decision applicants. The number of applications is lower for ED, but the number accepted from that pool is higher. For example, Baylor University accepted 88% of their ED applicant pool in fall 2019. Their regular decision acceptance rate was 45%. Often early decision students can make up anywhere from 25% to 50% (or more) of a college’s total class for that year. Northwestern says ED applicants have comprised 50% of their incoming class.
Why is the ED acceptance rate higher?
First, most recruited athletes are required to apply early decision so that has an impact on those acceptance rate figures. In addition, legacy students (those whose parents attended or graduated from that college) also have a higher rate of applying and being accepted early decision.
Beyond those two reasons, colleges want those ED applicants because they have the highest level of interest in the college. They are guaranteed attendees. As we are writing this blog in the midst of COVID-19, it is possible that the ED acceptance rate will be even higher than in the past because colleges are on weaker financial footing. Having those guaranteed “yes” students will go a long way to improving a college’s yield rate (the percentage of students who choose to enroll.)
Finally, early decision applicants are typically stronger candidates. They demonstrate academic or other characteristics which fit into what that particular college is looking for.
What is the danger of applying early decision?
So if the acceptance rate is more favorable for ED applicants, why doesn’t everyone do it? Because it is binding. A family must be prepared to pay what could potentially be full sticker price. The most important considerations are what will this university expect you to pay, how much aid (if any) do you qualify for, and are you comfortable that amount.
How do you know how much a college will expect you to pay?
Start with their net price calculator. Every university is required to have one on their website. (You might have to search a bit to find it.) Fill it out. If the estimated cost is something your family can manage and the student meets or exceeds the academic qualifications at that school, then applying early decision is a good choice.
Be aware the figure provided by the net price calculator is not guaranteed, and a few colleges may offer less aid to ED applicants than they would to regular decision students. Most universities though like Northwestern will guarantee the financial aid offer will be the same whether you apply ED or regular decision.
Some colleges like Dickinson will offer students considering early decision a “pre-read” so an applicant can learn more about their likelihood of admission or merit scholarship.
Can a student get out of this “binding” agreement?
The Common Application which most students use to apply to college has a very specific set of steps used when applying early decision. In addition to the student’s signature, ED requires parental and guidance counselor approval. They want to make sure everyone is on board with this decision.
If a student is accepted ED into a college, receives the financial aid offer, and simply cannot afford to attend, they will be released from the agreement. Extreme personal or family matters like a sick parent is also a universally accepted reason to back out.
If the student simply changes their mind, it gets a little murkier. Yes, a student can still back out; however, there could be repercussions. A student’s reputation could be on the line. A college may share their list of students who backed out without an acceptable reason with other colleges. A guidance counselor may report students who apply to multiple colleges as early decision applicants.
Just avoid this ethical quandary and only choose to apply early decision if:
- You have a strong idea of how much it will cost.
- You are comfortable with that amount.
- Your student meets or exceeds the average GPA, test scores, and class rank statistics for that college.
- This college is the “one”–no other college comes close.