- When you apply to a school under an early decision plan, you are committing to attend if accepted.
- If the school’s financial aid package isn’t enough, you may be able find other resources to bridge the gap.
- While ED plans are binding, it’s possible able to back out of the agreement if you ultimately can’t afford it.
- Read more stories from Personal Finance Insider.
When you apply to a college under its early decision admissions policy, you’re committing to attend that school if you make the cut. However, if after you’re accepted you find that you can’t pay for it, you have options. We’ll show you how to evaluate your financial aid package and look for additional resources if it’s not enough to cover all the costs.
What is early decision?
Early decision is one option you have to apply for college. ED plans are binding, meaning that if you are accepted you agree to attend that school and withdraw applications to all others. A common exception is if the financial aid package you receive isn’t enough for you to afford the cost of your school.
You can only apply to one school ED, so the option is best for students who are set on where they want to attend. All of your other applications must be submitted under regular admission or early action plans.
Under ED, you’ll receive your admission decision sooner than the usual notification date, often in December. Schools frequently accept ED applicants at a higher rate their their overall admission rates.
You won’t be able to compare financial aid offers with ED. That means you might miss out on a better offer elsewhere if you commit to a school early. For low-income students who might want to evaluate multiple packages to find the one most suited for them, ED is probably not be the best option. However, keep in mind that a school will try to meet your financial needs as best as it can.
About 450 colleges have early decision or early action plans, according to the College Board.
What happens after my ED application is accepted?
After you’re accepted at a school, its financial aid office will send the details of the aid available to you. The package can include several types of assistance, usually based on your financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
- Grants: Grants are one of the best forms of financial aid, as you don’t have to pay them back. They are often given based on exceptional financial need or to those who belong to a designated group. There are federal grants for certain subsets of students as well, which the Department of Education outlines here.
- Scholarships: You also won’t have to pay back scholarships, which are often given based on academic merit, athletic talent, or other achievements. Scholarships are offered through your school itself, and the amount available depends on the school.
- Work-study: Work-study programs offer part-time jobs for students with financial need to earn money for education. Jobs may include positions such as library receptionists and research assistants. The amount of money you receive will depend on when you apply, your level of financial need, and the funds your school has available.
- Subsidized loans: These loans are offered based on financial need, and you’ll have to pay them back. The government pays the interest on your loan while you’re in school, so it doesn’t accrue while you’re pursuing a degree or during a six-month grace period after graduation before you have to start repaying your loan in full.
- Unsubsidized loans: These loans don’t take financial need into account. Interest starts to accrue as soon as you take out the loan and continues to accrue during your six-month grace period. This is a more expensive option than a subsidized loan.
- Direct PLUS loans: These loans don’t consider financial need and require a credit check. Graduate and professional students, as well as parents of undergraduate students can take out Direct PLUS loans. Interest accrues during school and during a six-month grace period.
After looking at the breakdown of financial aid offerings, you should have a good idea of if you can afford the school or if you need more money to pay for the cost of attendance. Importantly, you don’t have to accept all the aid you’re offered. Focus on “gift aid” like scholarships and grants first, work-study second, and student loans last.
How can I bridge the financial gap if I can’t afford to pay?
If your financial aid package isn’t enough for you to afford the cost of your ED school, consider these options before you forgo attending the college.
Negotiate for more financial aid
It’s likely that your ED school will give its best offer when it initially presents your financial aid package. You also won’t have offers from other schools to use in negotiations, limiting your bargaining power.
However, you’ll never know what you may be able to get if you don’t ask. A college might offer you more financial aid if you explain a special set of circumstances, such as a family job loss or medical emergency.
Search for outside scholarships and grants
Local organizations are often a great place to start your search, as the pool of competitors is usually smaller than for flashier national scholarships. You can also talk to your guidance counselor, look into your state’s financial aid portal, and find professional groups related to your area of study.
Make sure you reach out to your college’s financial aid office to see if it will let you stack private scholarships and grants on top of the aid the college offers. Sometimes a college will deduct whatever aid you receive from a private source from the amount of grant or scholarship aid it offers you.
Think about private student loans
Federal student loans are a better option than private student loans. Federal student loans have better interest rates and come with a level of protection that private lenders don’t offer. But if you still can’t afford the cost of your school, you might consider taking out a private student loan.
What are the next steps if I can’t afford the school?
If you’ve determined your financial aid package isn’t substantial enough for you to attend the school, inform the school that you are backing out of your ED promise.
After you’ve gotten out of your ED commitment, you should continue to apply to other schools under regular decision plans. You’ll need to move relatively quickly. Most ED decisions come out by mid-December, and many regular decision applications close at the end of December, leaving you with only a couple of weeks to submit other applications.
You’ll hear back from most of these schools in March or April, with financial aid packages coming soon after acceptance letters. You can then compare each school’s financial aid offers and see what offer is most affordable. You may be able to leverage one school’s offer to get more financial aid from another.
While ED is binding in most cases, it is not a legal agreement, meaning you won’t face legal repercussions for backing out of the agreement. If you can’t afford the school you got into, try negotiating for more financial aid. If that doesn’t work, you still have the option to move onto other schools.
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