Early decision acceptance notices have just gone out from many highly rejective — they prefer “selective” — colleges, which means a lot of families are now trying to figure out how they’re going to make it work financially.
Here’s a news flash: These supposedly binding offers do not, in fact, oblige you to attend. If you can’t afford to go at the price that the college has asked you to pay, you can back out.
This seems to bear more than a little repeating, because people in positions of authority don’t always know the facts. And even the folks who should know best can sow confusion about what are highly emotional, six-figure decisions that families must make.
Who gets it wrong? I’m glad you asked.
This week, I happened upon a since-deleted blog post by an associate director of admissions at New York University. The post, which had an October 2021 date next to it on the school’s admissions office website, purported to correct early decision “myths” — and included a lot of bogus info.
The post said that if you break an early decision agreement, you can’t apply to a different school.
This could not be more wrong.
You can apply anywhere you want once you break an early decision agreement. You’re supposed to withdraw applications elsewhere and not send out others only if you accept an early decision offer.
After I asked about it, N.Y.U. took down the post, which appeared high up in search results for “N.Y.U. early decision.” John Beckman, a university spokesman, said in an email that the post hadn’t gone through the normal vetting process — although the problems should have been caught anyway, he said.
“There’s quite a lot wrong with this,” he wrote.
N.Y.U. isn’t the only school providing incorrect or opaque information about early decision. Some say they’ll work with you if your aid offer is insufficient but aren’t clear that you can walk away. Others compose their early decision websites without ever acknowledging that any such thing could happen or that it might be worthy of a Q in an F.A.Q.
But N.Y.U.’s post was a glaring example. Consider what was under the heading “Myth: I Don’t Need to Abide by the Early Decision Agreement.”
There was this admonishing passage about applying through early decision: “Your parent or guardian as well as your college counselor also sign the agreement when you apply E.D. Your actions are the collective responsibility and a reflection of these people.”
Mark Salisbury, for one, was outraged by this. He runs TuitionFit, a website where people can share their financial aid offers and see what others like them got, which means he talks to a lot of high school counselors.
By invoking this “responsibility,” he said, the post was reinforcing the idea that counselors should be an enforcement arm of college admissions offices. “When that signature is asked of them, that threat, it’s like, ‘Who is my loyalty to?’” said Mr. Salisbury, the former director of the institutional research office at Augustana College in Illinois. “It’s right there front and center.”
The threat that he’s talking about gets to a fear that families and many counselors often cite: If a student breaks an early decision agreement, the college may hold it against future applicants from that high school.
Mr. Beckman, the N.Y.U. spokesman, wants you to know that the school would never do that. “We’re not looking for college counselors to act as some kind of enforcer to strong arm students into accepting our offer of admission,” he wrote. “And we’re certainly not out to punish schools, counselors or applicants.”
The post went on to imply that the Common Application — the third-party manager of applications for lots of colleges — could tattle to other schools if an applicant broke an early decision agreement. That, the post said, could keep you out of those other schools.
Common App wasn’t happy about this. “The blog post is inaccurate and we have asked N.Y.U. to correct it,” a spokeswoman for Common App said in a statement. “We do NOT know college or student decisions, let alone share them with anyone.”
If only Common App extended that kind of clarity to all its communications. Some of the guidance it offers is also problematic.
Consider this line from its early decision agreement: “If the student is an early decision candidate and is seeking financial aid, the student need not withdraw other applications until the student has received notification about financial aid from the admitting early decision institution.”
Read that a few times and ask yourself this: What is the next step once that financial aid notification arrives?
Must students withdraw other applications, whether the aid offer makes the school affordable or not? Or are they free to break the early decision agreement if the aid is not enough? The agreement doesn’t say.
In my first exchange with the Common App spokeswoman, Emma Steele, she wrote, “The understood definition within the admissions field is that early decision is a binding agreement between the student and the admitting institution.”
Understood by whom, I asked. After all, the most prominent entity in the field — the National Association for College Admission Counseling — offers up crystal clear language that schools can (and do) use in their early decision agreements: “Should a student who applies for financial aid not be offered an award that makes attendance possible, the student may decline the offer of admission and be released from the early decision commitment.”
Why doesn’t the Common App just say that?
“We’ve reviewed as a team and agree with your point that it could be worded more clearly, so we’ll be discussing internally about how to make edits for future application cycles,” Ms. Steele said in an email. (My request to talk this out over the phone was not successful.)
So how best to proceed, given that early decision isn’t going away?
I consulted Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of the admission counseling association, who previously oversaw the enrollment operation at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Together, we came up with some points students and parents should consider.
If you’re in the thick of it now, with acceptance letter in hand but a troubling financial aid offer, consider two things.
First, and most importantly, you must do what is right for you — and only for you. But there is a right way to ask for more money (or walk away): assume a demeanor of humble inquiry, not entitlement.
If things don’t improve, go with grace. Wish everyone well and explain, in detail, to your high school counselor what has happened and why and how seriously you took the matter before pushing the eject button. People in those roles have long-term relationships to preserve with colleges, for the benefit of future students.
What if you’re thinking about applying early decision in the future?
First, use schools’ price calculators before applying to see what kind of aid they estimate that you will get if you get in. If the actual offer matches and your family circumstances haven’t changed since applying, it isn’t ethical to walk away because of the price. After all, you were warned.
With these estimates in mind, interrogate the feelings that emerge. Here, it’s worth considering a frustration that many admissions and financial aid professionals have shared with me over the years: Families may complain about their ability to pay when what is really at issue is their willingness to do so.
That makes it all the more important that children and parents be on the same page about the tuition budget. Kids deserve to know well ahead of time — like as early as eighth grade — that they may not be able to go to their dream school under certain financial circumstances, even if they get in early.
This is a lot to think about. And that is precisely the reason that N.Y.U., the Common App and so many other professionals involved with the early decision process should speak accurately and plainly about the rules of engagement.
If you have to back out of an early decision agreement because you can’t pay the bill, you should. I won’t judge you, and nobody else should either.
If enough people start walking, perhaps this entire system will fold in on itself.