Will ED Application to Colby Hurt Financial Aid Package?

Question: My child has decided that Colby is his first choice. He has submitted an application, and they have until January 29th to change it to Early Decision II. Is it more difficult to get financial aid as an ED candidate, or is that “need blind” as well.

For starters, Colby is no longer “need-blind” for Early Decision applicants or for any others. It is my understanding that Colby operates very much as Smith College did when I worked there, which was during the era that Smith switched from a “need-blind” to a “need-aware” approach. That is, candidates are initially evaluated and rated without regard to their financial need. Then, all of the higher-rated applicants will be admitted (again, without considering financial need), but some applicants with more borderline ratings who have high need (or sometimes any need) will be waitlisted or denied. (These are students who might have been admitted if they were able to pay full freight.)

In my Smith days, once the college had made that switch to need-aware, I used to notice that during the Early Decision rounds more of the borderline applicants who required financial assistance were accepted than during the Regular Decision round. Thus, I used to encourage students to apply ED, especially if they were candidates I personally liked but who might look only so-so on paper. I pointed out that, if they applied ED and were accepted but without adequate aid, they could always withdraw without penalty. But, in most cases, these ED applicants were accepted and fully funded.

I realize that the grapevine (as well as some so-called “admission experts”) will tell you that colleges don’t make their best financial aid offers to students who have applied via Early Decision and are thus “sure-things.” Conventional wisdom may suggest that, instead, the colleges will save their dough to lure the most desirable Regular Decision candidates who haven’t yet made a binding commitment.

I do feel that this can sometimes be true with merit aid. But, at places like Colby where the financial aid is need-based (and thus largely calculated by formula), the benefits of applying Early Decision (which will give your son a significant admissions-odds boost) far outweigh any concerns you might have about a lower aid award. Moreover, unlike many comparable colleges, Colby offers grant-only, no-loan aid packages. This is another check in the plus-column in favor of ED. Arguably, some colleges with need-based aid may offer ED applicants aid packages that include less grant and more loan, figuring that they’ll save their grant bucks for the uncommitted RD candidates. But, at Colby, everyone who qualifies for aid will get a grant-only package.

So, although it’s irresponsible (at least a bit) to advise your son without knowing a lot more about him and about your family’s financial situation, I cast my vote in favor of Early Decision. Again, keep in mind that a “binding” commitment isn’t really binding when the money isn’t up to snuff. If your son is accepted to Colby via ED but the aid award is insufficient, you should appeal this award before walking away. Colleges do not like to lose admitted students.

However, before your son switches his application to ED, he should check on the Colby policy regarding ED students who turn down an acceptance for financial reasons. At some colleges, these students are automatically reconsidered in the Regular Decision pool, but at others they are out of the running once they refuse the admission offer. This is something you probably want to determine in advance, in case it affects your son’s next steps.

(posted 1/10/2012)