Is it ever appropriate to renege on an Early Decision commitment?  Is it that big a deal?  Last Monday a post on the NACAC Exchange sought the collective wisdom of the list on those questions. The counselor responsible for the post wanted to advise a student on the repercussions of breaking an Early Decision commitment in order to accept an offer from another school. She reported that another area counselor had stated that backing out of an Early Decision commitment is not that serious, but she had heard rumors of ED list-sharing between colleges and even blacklisting.


The post on the Exchange arrived as I was in the midst of an all-too-rare frenzy of cleaning out my Inbox, and so I deleted it without much thought.  Later that same evening I received an e-mail that looked like another Exchange post, except that it was addressed to “Jim.”  It was from a colleague I have met but don’t know well, and she asked, “Should our group respond?”


One of the gifts I received from my mother was the ability to read between the lines and understand subtext and nuance.  Her first comment after my high school graduation was, “Dennis sure won a lot of awards,” which I correctly translated as “You sure didn’t.”  Likewise, when she told me how good my sister was to her, I understood that the commentary wasn’t about my sister but about me.  So when I read the e-mail, I realized that the proper response wasn’t that “Yes, someone should” but rather “Let me take a whack at it.”   I responded to the Exchange, but let me take a whack in this venue as well.


I consider an Early Decision commitment a big deal.  A number of years ago I had a student tell me on a Friday that he was planning to apply Early Decision to one institution and then tell me on Monday, after a weekend campus visit, that he was applying ED to a different institution.  He, like many students, considered Early Decision as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.  He was applying Early Decision, he just hadn’t decided where.  I told him that if one weekend campus visit could change his mind about where he wanted to go, then he wasn’t ready to apply anywhere Early Decision.


I don’t know whether I would give the same advice today.  I haven’t changed my view that Early Decision should be chosen as an application option only if a student is far enough along in their college search to know that they have an absolute first choice and don’t need their senior year to bolster their credentials for admission, but the realities of the selective college landscape today mean that Early Decision may now be a necessary strategy.  With some institutions admitting half their classes early and at least one Ivy anticipating that the admit rate for regular applicants will be 2%, Early Decision may be the only chance for an unhooked student to get admitted to a highly selective college or university.  There is therefore cognitive dissonance between my beliefs about how the college search and admissions processes should be conducted and my responsibility to advise my students properly.


Early Decision is not legally binding, but is a moral contract where the college agrees to give the student a decision earlier than normal in exchange for the commitment to attend if accepted.  Usually Early Decision also specifies or implies that the student will withdraw other applications once accepted Early Decision.  Most colleges require the student and parent (and in many cases the school counselor) to sign an Early Decision agreement acknowledging the expectations of Early Decision.


So, when, if ever, is it legitimate to back out of an Early Decision commitment?  It is considered kosher to renege on Early Decision if the college is unable to meet the student’s demonstrated financial need (not necessarily the same thing as what the family is willing to pay)?  On the same day that the post regarding Early Decision appeared on the NACAC Exchange, I received a call from the parent of one of my seniors who had been accepted E.D. 2 over the weekend.  The dad was confused and flustered because the financial aid package seemed to include no grant and approximately $30,000 in loans, a very different package than suggested on the college’s Net Price Calculator.


I hope the dad’s understanding about the financial aid package was incorrect, but that kind of package would seem a legitimate reason to back out of the ED commitment.  I suppose an all-loan package qualifies as meeting full need, but asking a family with clear need to go into debt more than $100,000 is indefensible.  I don’t happen to believe that a college has an ethical obligation to meet a student’s financial need, but it is ethically desirable and praiseworthy to do so.  I think the bigger issue from an ethical (and perhaps legal) standpoint is the discrepancy between the financial aid award and the Net Price Calculator.


Do colleges share ED lists and do they blacklist students and schools who break ED commitments?  In my Exchange post I mentioned that the technology now exists for colleges to know when a student has enrolled elsewhere and that it is not unheard of for both colleges to withdraw acceptances when they learn that a student has played games.  That is more likely to occur with double depositing on May 1 than in Early Decision.  I don’t have evidence of any kind of Early Decision blacklist, and suspect there are plenty of institutions who would be unconcerned that a student had backed out of a commitment at another institution, but I have heard a Dean of Admission at a prestigious national liberal-arts college state that she would hold a student’s failure to live up to the Early Decision commitment against the student’s high school.


What is a school counselor’s obligation with regard to an Early Decision commitment?  That question came up in a follow-up from a counselor after my post to the Exchange.


I think our first responsibility is to educate our students about what Early Decision means, focusing less on the Early piece and more on the Decision piece.  Early Decision is not a game or strategy or choice to be taken lightly.  The ethical obligations for the counselor are increased if he or she has signed an Early Decision agreement form or if the school is a member of NACAC, where the Statement of Principles of Good Practice requires counseling professionals to advise students to abide by application requirements and restrictions.  That is hard to do without the support of school administrators, especially in a litigious age.  In the rare case where there is a compelling reason for backing out of an Early Decision agreement, I would counsel the student to contact the college and ask to be released from the commitment.  The college may not be happy, but it also doesn’t want to force a student who doesn’t want to be there to enroll.


The larger question, of course, is whether Early Decision should exist at all.  That’s a discussion for another day. As long as ED is a recognized convention within the college admission world, we need to make sure that it works as intended and that it is taken seriously by all parties.