An Early Decision Agreement is Binding

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhDM

An Early Decision application is a serious commitment on both sides. When a student decides to apply to a college ED, that student may apply to other institutions under an Early Action (EA) plan, but they may submit only one ED application. If an ED applicant is not admitted but is deferred to the Regular Decision (RD) cycle, they’re released from the ED agreement and are free to accept any other college’s offer of admission.

Why would a college care if you break your ED agreement? While it is true that many of these very selective schools admit only a small percentage of applicants and they can readily fill your slot with another well-qualified applicant, administrators care because they use ED as a tool to shape the quality of their freshmen classes and raise their yield rate (i.e. the percent of those who apply, are admitted and matriculate). If applicants admitted under an ED plan can renege with impunity, the purpose of an ED plan is defeated as is its value to the institution.

Aside from the quality of freshmen class and yield rate, there are even more important considerations. When a student backs out of ED agreement without valid cause, it raises questions about the student’s ethics that could impact decisions elsewhere. Some guidance counselors and colleges take steps to discourage reneging on ED agreements. For example:

  • Brown, Penn, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth have a common ED plan. If an ED applicant is admitted to one of them, they must honor their agreement or be ineligible for admission to any of the others. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton share a similar plan.
  • ED applicant, parents, and guidance counselor must all sign the ED agreement. I have heard that some guidance counselors place a hold on sending transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other admission materials on behalf of students who have applied via ED until the decision is known; both their credibility and the reputation of their high school with admissions officials is at stake.
  • 30 very selective liberal arts colleges share lists of students admitted to each of them via ED so that the others don’t unwittingly admit them. To be fair, they also share the names of students who were admitted via ED but were released from their commitments.
  • Admissions officials sometimes discover that a student has submitted two or more ED applications. Some will warn the student about the impropriety of this action and give them a chance to pull back the additional ED applications. If the student persists, officials will contact the affected colleges; the usual result is each college will terminate consideration of the applicant.

There are several legitimate reasons why a college will release an applicant from an ED commitment. Here are a few common examples:

  • Necessary financial aid from the college didn’t develop as originally planned; documentation of both the original plan and details about how it did not develop must be present
  • A parent or other family member has died or fallen ill and enrollment at a college is no longer feasible or desirable
  • A parent’s career has suffered a serious setback
  • The student has suffered a major health issue and is unable to attend

Talk to your college counselor and be sure you understand the commitment you’re making. Applying ED to one favored school to boost your chance of admission is often part of a sound strategy to help ensure the success of your college admissions journey. Understanding and following through on the commitment it entails is critical to your development as an ethical person and helps to ensure your ultimate success.