One of the core objectives of this college admissions blog has long been to debunk misconceptions about the highly selective college admissions process. And today we will do just that as we address an article in The New York Times by Ron Lieber entitled “Early Decision Isn’t Binding. Let Us Explain.” In The Paper of Record, Mr. Lieber argues that students who apply under binding Early Decision policies aren’t bound to matriculate if the school can’t meet the student’s demonstrated financial need. And that’s absolutely true. Every Early Decision policy at elite universities includes language that if the school can’t meet the student’s demonstrated financial need, the student will not be bound to attend. But the misleading title of Mr. Lieber’s column suggests more — that students can just flippantly maneuver their way out of a binding commitment if they so feel like it. And that’s absolutely untrue.
In his article, Mr. Lieber describes coming across an NYU admissions blog post in which its author wrote that if a student breaks an Early Decision commitment, the student cannot apply to other schools. That, of course, is not true if the student backed out of the Early Decision commitment because the school failed to meet their demonstrated financial need. So NYU took the post down and agreed with Mr. Lieber that it was indeed misleading without that important language.
So, yes, bravo, Mr. Lieber. Students can indeed break an Early Decision commitment if the school doesn’t meet their family’s demonstrated financial need. With the exception of NYU’s language on the blog post you referenced, this has never really been disputed. But by headlining an article that Early Decision isn’t binding, Mr. Lieber is misleading his audience, an audience that may not make it to his explanation. And, in fact, the heart of his article — his most salient point — is towards the end when he writes, “What if you’re thinking about applying early decision in the future? First, use schools’ net price calculator 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.”
Well said, Mr. Lieber. Yes, the fact is that it is a rare instance when a college can’t meet an admitted Early Decision candidate’s demonstrated financial need, particularly since students can plug their family’s numbers into the net price calculators on every college’s website to have a clear understanding of the aid they should expect to receive. You see, too many folks make it seem like students should not apply Early Decision because they can’t weigh financial aid offers. But students do not need to apply to colleges to have an understanding of the aid they should expect to receive from each university — through the net price calculators. They can figure out these numbers before ever submitting applications.
So, yes, Early Decision is indeed binding — unless it’s the rare instance when the college can’t meet the student’s demonstrated financial need. But we suppose this headline would have been too verbose and not attention-grabbing enough for Mr. Lieber.
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