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By Elizabeth LaScala

Understanding Early Decision in College Admissions

Uploaded: Aug 28, 2014

Early Decision is an application program offered by many colleges and universities that provides an early admission decision in exchange for the student's commitment to enroll. A student may only apply ED to one college, and, if admitted ED, a student must withdraw all other applications and enroll at the ED school. This is common knowledge for most families in our savvy communities.

What is not commonly understood is that ED is an enrollment management strategy that always benefits colleges and only sometimes benefits students. ED is a way for colleges to secure 'high yield' students (full pay or nearly full pay students who will definitely enroll) for their entering classes. In contrast to the guaranteed admission that comes with each ED acceptance, schools must accept 3-5 students in Regular Decision in order to secure the enrollment of one definite full-pay student. Although each ED acceptance reduces the entering freshman class by one seat, colleges can reduce their numbers of Regular Decision offers as many as five-fold.

Colleges who offer the ED option consider one of three outcomes when students apply ED: acceptance, deferral and denial. If accepted, the student is expected to enroll. When deferred, or denied, the student is released from the ED commitment and can pursue other options?including ED at another school. Students who are deferred will be considered again in the Regular Decision application review.

In past years it was commonly believed that only highly competitive students (who were convinced that a particular school was their very best match academically and socially and whose family could afford the college bill) should apply as an ED applicant. More recently, as colleges increasingly struggle to build enrollment with students who are both likely to come and full pay, applicants who are "reasonably competitive" may benefit from the ED option. ED may be an especially attractive option for those who do not require financial assistance or may acquire assistance via athletic or merit awards.

So let's take an example. One highly selective university "Selective U" in the mid-west offers institutional aid largely in the form of grants to the most exceptional students (top 15% of the students in their applicant pool) and the merit aid averages only around $10k-$12k. The university maintains that the scholarships are independent of family finances, so ED should not influence scholarships for the top 15%.

However, one of my students this year is considering applying ED to this university. Her ACT score of 34, places her right at the 75th percentile for this college's median range of the ACT (middle 50% of applicants who were admitted last cycle). That means she does not reach the 85th percentile where Selective U tends to give grants. Other academic and extracurricular achievements may influence the admission decision as well. The student's GPA at end of junior year is a weighted 4.4 with 3 AP classes in her senior year. Her 3 SAT subject tests are good, but not great (low 700s for math and science, 680 for social science).

Since the family needs an annual merit award of at least $25,000 to afford the college, this student should not apply ED to this highly selective university. Instead, the student should apply more broadly to selective colleges that are known to be generous with merit aid and choose among her options in the spring. The student should also apply to public universities honors programs and consider our in-state UC system as well.

The family's financial profile includes an income of $220,000 and home ownership in an affluent area (with mortgage). With the help of a family financial advisor, other factors considered included two younger siblings who plan to attend college, 529 plan contributions, the age of the parents, the parents' current nest egg for retirement and current as well as planned 401K contributions.

This type of analysis should precede the compilation of a final college list for all but the wealthiest of families. And this type of careful attention to finances helps a family to determine if a student should apply to any particular college, not just ED to elite Selective U. Most of my clients must face the question: can they flow cash to the tune of about $65,000 per year (total COA) for four college years and still build assets to fund the "golden years" which can stretch into the early 90s for many baby boomers. Funding the long life that lies ahead for most parents is the biggest challenge to take into account. Remember the child going off to college has a life time of earnings to build upon.

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admission. Elizabeth helps students identify majors and career paths, and develops best match college lists; she offers personalized essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth guides students from all backgrounds to maximize scholarship opportunities and financial aid awards. For more information visit Elizabeth Call (925) 891-4491 or email her at [email protected]