Applying to College: Can You Afford to Be an Early Bird?

If you missed it, I wrote a post earlier in the week about applying early decision to colleges:

The Odds of Applying Early Decision

I assumed this post would lead to more questions on this issue and sure enough I got an email from a mom with a question that I thought was worth sharing with you. Here is what she wrote:

I have been following your blog for well over three years.  Over the years you have written a number of blogs on early decision.   Here is my question:  my son is considering applying early decision.  Financial aid is important, but he feels he stands a better chance of getting in if he applies early.  I have read all your blogs on early decision, but now that colleges are required to have an “Estimated Financial Calculator” what is your take? In our case, if I use the calculator the EFC number provided by the college using their “Estimated Financial Calculator,” the financial aid is acceptable, but this is the first year and I would appreciate your thoughts.
Based on your blog, my oldest son is attending college on the east coast.  Accepted to Berkeley and UCLA, he applied out of state and was accepted to Swarthmore College.  This is his second year.
Thanks in advance for your advice.

My Take on Early Decision and Net Price Calculators

Early decision will often provide teenagers with an admission advantage, but one of the hazards of choosing this approach is that it requires a leap of faith. You must commit to a school without knowing what kind of need-based financial aid or merit award you might receive. That’s one reason why early decision practices are controversial because it favors wealthy families who don’t have to worry about financial aid packages.
That said, I don’t think it’s a risk to apply to schools known for their generosity. If a college has pledged to meet 100% of the financial need of all its students — or close to that — I think it’s safe to apply. These schools aren’t going to rip you off.
Most colleges, however, can’t be that generous with the majority of their students. At many schools only the most coveted applicants can expect their full financial aid need to be met. And it can be tough knowing if you’re going to be one of those lucky teenagers. The new net price calculators, however, can help by taking the financial aid guess work out of the process.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, every college in the country must install a cost calculator on its websites by late October. These calculators will provide a personal estimate of what an institution will cost a specific family based on their own financial situation and, in some cases, the academic profile of the teenager. Here is a recent post that I wrote about these calculators:

A New Way to Add Up the Cost of College

So what I’d do before applying early decision is to use the calculator for a potential ED school. If the calculator spits out a number that you’re comfortable with, go for it. The mom is right that the calculators are new and I expect their accuracy will vary. As an extra precaution, I would suggest you contact the financial aid office of the ED college and ask about your circumstances.

A Safety Net….

As a practical matter, colleges can’t force a child to attend a school that the family can’t afford, but colleges aren’t going to publicize that fact.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report.

More from The College Solution:

10 Ways to Shrink the Cost of College
What Ever Happened to Shakespeare?
4 Ways to Check Out Colleges and Universities

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