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Is Early Decision Binding? Can You Get Out of it due to Financial Aid?

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If you’re planning to apply Early Decision and need financial aid, you may be wondering whether you can withdraw from the ED agreement if your college doesn’t grant enough aid. The good news is that you generally can get out of Early Decision for legitimate reasons, like insufficient financial aid. 


Here’s everything you need to know about exceptions to the Early Decision agreement, plus pros and cons of applying ED, and tips for ED applicants who need financial aid.


Is Early Decision Binding? How Can You Get Out of Early Decision?


Under ED timelines, you can only apply to one college. Early Decision is binding, meaning that if you’re accepted, you’re required to attend—except in certain unusual circumstances (as outlined below). Some schools also offer ED II plans for students who don’t want to submit their applications early, but still want to designate a certain college as their first choice. These plans are also binding, but their application deadlines are later than those of ED I, and typically fall around the same time Regular Decision deadlines.


There are some timelines that allow students to apply and find out their admissions decisions early that are nonbinding, including early action (EA) and single-choice early action (SCEA). You can apply to as many colleges as you like under the EA plan. Under SCEA, you can only apply to one private college early, but you can apply to as many public colleges as you’d like; you can also apply to any college Regular Decision.


Exceptions to the Early Decision Agreement


There are some exceptions to the binding nature of an early decision agreement. For example, if you truly can’t afford to attend the college with the financial aid package offered, this is usually legitimate grounds for withdrawing from the agreement. Before you back out though, try to work it out with the financial aid office. They might be able to negotiate or offer additional resources to help you pay.


A college may also be willing to allow you to withdraw from the agreement if you have an emergency, such as a personal or family illness, accident, or death. In that case, you should explain the situation to the admissions office. You might be able to take a gap year, or the college could allow you to withdraw entirely.


It’s important to remember that while an early decision contract is not legally binding, there can be severe consequences should you withdraw for a non-compelling reason. The ED college could inform other colleges, and you could lose your place at all the colleges to which you’ve been accepted. So, it’s essential to do your homework and ensure that the ED college truly is your first choice.

Pros and Cons of Applying Early Decision


Pros of Early Decision

The biggest advantage to applying Early Decision is that your chances of acceptance are generally higher than they are when you apply Regular Decision. Of course, many candidates who apply early are self-selecting, meaning they’re well-qualified for and well-suited to the college to which they’re applying. That said, ED applicants are overall accepted at a 10-12% higher rate than RD applicants are, even after controlling for profile strength. For more info on how ED impacts your chances, see our post Does Applying Early Decision Increase My Chances?


Another advantage is that given the early timeline, you’ll typically find out your admissions decision around December for ED I, much earlier than your peers (usually February for ED II, which is still 1-2 months earlier). If you’re accepted, this will alleviate all that college admissions anxiety in advance.


Cons of Early Decision

One drawback to applying ED is that you can’t compare financial aid packages. To be clear, the same amount of aid is granted by the same college regardless of your application timeline—schools don’t give people less aid just because you applied Early Decision. By applying ED, you could potentially lose out on a better financial aid package from another school though, as you won’t have the chance to consider other schools’ offers.


Another downside is that you’ll have to complete your application quickly, usually by November for ED I (if you apply ED II, your deadline is generally January). This means you’ll have to be well-organized and complete all your materials quickly.


Tips for Applying Early Decision if You Need Financial Aid


Find out your cost of attendance. If you need financial aid and want to apply ED, you should first find out your expected family contribution. Most schools have a net price calculator on their financial aid website that allows you to estimate your cost of attendance. These calculators tend to be pretty accurate, as they use the school’s specific algorithm for determining aid.


If you don’t want to enter that information over and over again in each specific school’s net price calculator, you can just do it once on our free CollegeVine platform. By entering your financial information just once, you can see your estimated cost of attendance for over 500 colleges. We base our estimates on years of data from each specific school, so you can also expect our numbers to be accurate.


Don’t apply EDII. If you’re concerned about needing to withdraw due to insufficient financial aid, don’t apply EDII. This will severely limit your options in the event you need to withdraw, as EDII decisions typically come out in February, when basically all Regular Decision timelines have passed. The only schools you’ll still be able to apply to at this point will be those with Rolling Admissions, which tend to be large state schools. ED I is safer as you’ll get your decision in December, giving you time to apply RD if you need to withdraw from your ED school.


Make sure you have RD applications ready. On that note, every ED applicant should prepare Regular Decision applications regardless of whether or not you need financial aid. This will keep you from scrambling last minute to apply to other schools, in the event you’re not accepted, or if you need to get out of your ED agreement due to financial aid.


For more info on applying ED with financial need, check out our blog post: Should I Apply Early Decision If I Need Financial Aid?


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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.