Early decision is a binding process, usually with a November application deadline and a December admissions decision. Students may apply to only one college via early decision, and if accepted, they typically must attend or risk having to sit out of school for a year. An early decision application can boost a student’s odds of getting into their dream school, but it also means they lose the chance to compare and negotiate financial aid offers from multiple schools.
Because the 2024-25 FAFSA will be simplified — and the release delayed from Oct. 1, 2023, until sometime in December — many colleges won’t be able to provide accurate financial aid estimates or final packages alongside early decision admissions, says Connie Livingston, head of college counselors with admissions counseling group Empowerly and a former admissions counselor at Brown University.
“In years prior, you knew what your package was when you knew your decision,” Livingston explains. “Now you’re getting an estimate, which is better than nothing, but it’s not a guarantee.”
If you’re thinking about applying early decision this fall, here are six tips to help you navigate the FAFSA overhaul and your college financial aid prospects.
1. Apply to CSS Profile schools
About 250 universities use the more detailed CSS Profile alongside the FAFSA to calculate institutional aid, like scholarships and grants. The 2024-25 CSS Profile opened on Oct. 1. At CSS Profile schools, prospective early decision applicants may have better luck getting an accurate financial aid estimate before they decide to apply, says Shannon Vasconcelos, senior director of college finance for Bright Horizons College Coach, an admissions and financial aid counseling company.
However, students who apply early to FAFSA-only schools likely won’t have a reliable financial aid estimate before applying, Vasconcelos says.
The vast majority of institutions that use the CSS Profile are private, although a handful of public schools like the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan also use it.
2. Estimate your financial aid
In past years, colleges’ online net price calculators have been the best way to estimate how much your education could cost at an institution — but with a lack of clarity around the new FAFSA, many of these calculators have not yet been updated, Vasconcelos says. Early decision applications should use other calculators.
If your family has an income below a certain threshold — check the income cap with the early decision school to which you’re applying — it’s more likely that you’ll get enough aid to attend. Most early decision schools meet 100% of demonstrated financial need, but they don’t offer merit aid, Livingston says.
3. Read the fine print
Students have the option to back out of early decision agreements if they can’t afford to attend. Carefully read the agreement at your school of choice before applying.
“I think that we’re going to see more families take advantage of that fine print this year and pull out of that early decision agreement, because they didn’t understand what they were getting into financially, or they did not have an accurate estimate of financial aid eligibility upfront,” Vasconcelos says.
Backing out from an early decision acceptance is a process. For example, at Columbia University in New York, families must consult with a financial aid officer and explain their circumstances before a student can be released from an early decision agreement. The timing can also be risky: When students finally get their delayed financial aid packages for the 2024-25 school year, application deadlines at other schools may have passed.
Make sure to print out and save any financial aid estimates you’ve received from schools, Vasconcelos advises. These records can come in handy if you need to request more aid or get out of your binding admissions agreement.
4. Request your FSA ID now
Each person — including the student and parents — who fills out the 2024-25 FAFSA will need a unique FSA ID. It can take up to three days to receive an FSA ID after you request it.
Request your FSA ID ahead of time so you’ll be ready to fill out the FAFSA right away upon its December release and get your financial aid package as fast as possible.
Everyone should fill out the FAFSA, regardless of whether or not they think they’ll qualify for aid, says Livingston. Many colleges use the application to help determine eligibility for scholarships and merit aid in addition to need-based aid.
5. Consider early action or regular decision
Roughly 87% of U.S. undergraduates received financial aid in 2020-21, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For these students, applying early action (which is nonbinding) or regular decision may be a safer bet than early decision.
If you get multiple admissions offers, you can compare financial packages and costs of each school, and even try to negotiate your aid offers.
“When you apply early action or regular decision, then you’re not making a commitment,” says Vasconcelos. “You can go back to schools and say, ‘Thanks for this nice $5,000 scholarship but this other school gave me $10,000; is there anything else you can do?’ and some schools are amenable to that.”
That type of negotiation is off the table if you apply early decision, Vasconcelos says, but you might still be able to appeal for more aid after an early decision acceptance if your financial situation changes.
6. Reach out to financial aid offices
If you need more help understanding how the FAFSA simplification and delay could affect your plans to apply early decision, reach out to the financial aid offices at your target schools.
“They are expecting a lot of questions, and maybe some confusion, so they’re ready to help students and families through this process,” says Livingston.