Have you looked into getting admitted to a preferred school much earlier than standard admissions deadlines? Then you’re probably considering an “early decision” or “early action” where the student chooses to attend a specific college much earlier than standard admissions deadlines.
Know the difference: Early decision (ED) refers to a binding decision to attend a specific school. Students taking early decision commit to one specific school as early as the fall semester of senior year, foregoing admission to any other institution. Early Action (EA) is a non-binding admissions process where students are notified very early of their acceptance but may choose to attend a different school.
Early decision: How’s it paid for? Going forward with an early decision requires organization and a clear path to covering the balance. Traditionally, the biggest challenge associated with early decision was affordability, since the choice was made without comparing actual financial aid offers from other schools. Gaining early admission with the means to pay the bill outright regardless of financial aid and scholarships works for some, but not all families. If the financial aid offered with an early decision application is too low, families have the option to appeal the decision and ultimately reject if proven unaffordable. Going through early decision only to end up not attending is an avoidable stress through realistic college planning, so unless the school is an absolute “must attend” situation, it may not be worth applying this way. It’s expected that students only submit one early decision application to one school, but may also submit standard applications to other schools by agreeing to withdraw those applications if accepted for the early decision school. There is a wide gap from early admissions beginning in November to when standard admissions deposits are due in May, so be aware of deadlines to know when a final decision is required.
Early action: What are my options? Early action admissions allow students the benefit of immediately applying to several schools instead of just one. This allows for families to compare financial aid offers without being bound to just one institution. Early action has become much more common to help students zero in on their final college choice after recognizing all their best options. Early action does require a pro-active approach to make sure each school has all admissions and financial aid information available allowing for clear comparisons between offers.
Financial aid applications are early too: The FAFSA (and CSS Profile) has been available since October 1, 2016 for college students beginning their freshman year in Fall 2017. This is 3 months earlier than the traditional January 1st FAFSA date, allowing more time for schools to begin sorting through many financial aid requests and early admission applications. Since this is the first time FAFSA is being made available so early, most schools are still following regular deadlines like in March, April and May. But for families handling early admissions, this earlier date hopefully provides more breathing room to compare options.
Merit based vs need based funding: Remember the differences between college funding. Grants are need based financial aid awards provided by federal, state and school programs considering income and asset information on the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. Merit based scholarships are awarded to students considering high test scores, grades, sports, community service and other student qualities and achievements. When making a final choice about early admissions, make sure the financial aid award letter accounts for both need based and merit based funding eligibility. You want a complete financial picture when comparing school options, which is why all your financial aid documentation needs to be filed as early as possible.