It sounds like a no-brainer to maximize a high-school senior’s chances to get into college by picking one college to apply to early decision, which in most cases is binding.
The pressure to commit is enormous all across the board, from small state schools to the most selective of the Ivy League. But this year, the federal financial-aid process has shifted to a December start date that is still to be announced, and might actually spill over in January. Early applications are generally due Nov. 1 or Nov. 15, with decisions out in mid-December.
The CSS Profile, a much more intensive financial-aid form used by more than 200 of the top private universities, is set to officially open at its usual time on Oct. 1, according to Sara Sympson, director of communications for the College Board, which administers the form. (You may already be able to access the link on the CSS Profile website.) However, the colleges that use that form can’t finalize aid packages until families complete the federal form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), in order to include loans and subsidized grants.
There’s potentially an $80,000-a-year price tag on the line for tuition and room and board.
“A lot of things are unknown. The class entering in 2024 is kind of a guinea pig. It’ll be a kerfuffle,” said Joe Messinger, co-founder and director of college planning at Capstone Wealth Partners and co-founder and strategic adviser at College Aid Pro.
As a financial planner and the parent of a high-school senior, I worry this seems like exactly the wrong way to make a huge financial decision. Get in, and then figure out if you can pay for it? For most early-decision schools, you’re supposed to pull all other applications too, so you wouldn’t even be able to compare offers.
“The worst thing I hear is parents saying, ‘If you get in, we’ll figure it out,’” Messinger said. “That’s not the time to have that conversation.”
Is there a better way? Here’s what college financial-aid experts say you can do to avoid stepping into an unknown — and very expensive — abyss with early applications this year:
Just skip it
Gary Carpenter’s advice to clients of his financial-aid consulting business is simply to not apply to any early-decision school that requires a binding decision. But this advice is hard to hear for many families, who want their best shot at admission, damn the price.
The early scramble isn’t just for the Ivy League or other selective schools; it may actually be more intense at schools that are using early admission as a marketing tool and trying to bolster their classes with early admits. Many financial experts agree on that point.
“They have to compete,” Messinger said. “Think about a school like Denison University in Ohio, which leans on early decision heavily. Last year that was 50% of their class.”
You could look instead for schools that offer early action, which is similar to early decision but not binding. It’s offered less frequently but is growing in popularity, said Ross Riskin, a certified college financial consultant and chief learning officer at the Investments and Wealth Institute, a nonprofit certification body.
That way, you can get in early but still apply to other places and decide by the regular May 1 deadline. “You have more time to plan, and you can go back to the school to try to get a better offer,” Riskin said.
Some schools, like Loyola Marymount University in California, have a binding early-decision application and a nonbinding early-action one, both due Nov. 1. A second binding early-decision round is due Jan. 8, 2024, and the regular-decision date is Jan. 15. “I tell families, why go crazy?” Carpenter said.
Another early option is called restrictive early action, which isn’t binding, but requires you to not apply early to any other school. Harvard and Yale Universities are among the schools that offer this option.
“Applicants for early decision often don’t prioritize being able to compare financial-aid packages between colleges [and] universities as much as they value acceptance to a specific college or university,” said Jonathon Ferguson, a CCFC based in Madison, Wis. “These feelings may be more pronounced this year due to the extended wait to submit the FAFSA, simply because it’s hard for many families to not be able to take actions and need to wait.”
Game it out
Every college is required to have a net-price calculator to help families figure out ahead of time how much they will be charged, so theoretically, you should be able to get a good sense of what a college will cost you. But these often aren’t accurate, said Carpenter, who is also executive director of the National College Affordability Group. They’ll be even less so this year, because the FAFSA is changing to a simplified form with several new rules.
There’s one clue as to how good a school’s calculator is: How many questions does it ask? “If it’s three or four, it’s not accurate,” Carpenter said. “If it asks 40, it’ll be closer.”
But none of the calculators will tell you about merit aid or other scholarships. And the FAFSA will just give you a number, now called the student-aid index, that gives a sense of what the government thinks you can afford and how much the student qualifies for in federal loans and grants. It won’t tell you the final price of the school, and that could be wildly misleading.
If you’re willing to pay, you can hire an adviser or access online software. Messinger’s College Aid Pro has a limited free version or a $149 yearly starter subscription, which can help you run an analysis of what your likely costs will be.
However, this strategy only works if you have the information available to put into the calculator. You’ll need to have it ready to go when the financial-aid forms finally open, so it’s good to get it going. But you can run into trouble if you don’t have access to what you need, like in the case of a divorced family that doesn’t share financial information. And still, you can’t account for how much a school is willing to discount its price for your extraordinary child.
Apply early and ignore the rules
The last option is to let your high-school senior throw their hat in the ring for the school they want and thwart the binding early-decision agreement by continuing to apply to other schools to see if you get a better financial-aid package. If the early-decision school accepts your child and the aid package does not work for you, then the contracts have some language that allows you to explore your other options. So technically, there shouldn’t be repercussions, but urban legends live large.
“The schools can’t actually hold your feet to the fire if you can’t afford it,” Messinger said. “Some try to use it as a leverage tool, but they can’t make you come.”
Messinger said he’s heard a lot of parents say getting in early is like winning the lottery, but it’s really like a backwards lottery, because you’re paying them for your prize. Applying early and also keeping in all your regular applications to sort out later is also a little backward. The best advice is to figure out what you can afford to pay for college, and apply only to schools where you can be sure you can afford it.
“It should be financial first,” Carpenter said. “But this year, nobody knows what’s going on and that’s what’s so frustrating.”
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