Early decision: How do colleges force compliance?

So, early decision: you apply to a college early, and their acceptance is said to be binding. My question is, how do they *make *it binding? What leverage do they have over you, other than keeping your deposit?

Inquiring parental minds want to know. (And if the College Board were somehow involved, I would not be the least bit surprised.)

Keeping your deposit is about all they can really do AFAIK. They can’t force you to attend against your will.

Early decision typically involves a binding contract. Early action usually doesn’t. The leverage they have over you in the former case are mostly the following:

  1. You lose your deposit/fees/etc.
  2. No other competitive school will accept you.
  3. Technically, they would screw up your financial aid, or (very unlikely) sue you for damages.

Number 2 is the real issue you have to worry about as admissions is a fairly small community, and there are ways to tell where a student has applied to. Many colleges exchange early admit lists for this reason. There is also the issue that many applications will ask you if you have been admitted elsewhere via ED, and if you lie on subsequent applications, it gives them an out to rescind your admission.

More importantly, if you don’t go there is a good chance the college will punish your high school and the GC in the future. You will be making it harder for others from your school in the future. Your high school will actively discourage you from doing this as they will (by necessity) be aware of all of these things as they will need to send transcripts, etc.

Typically, the most common way out is that you (legitimately) claim financial hardship due to an insufficient aid package. Nowadays, they will often let you out if you call and sincerely express your apologies and reason why you can’t/won’t go. Most schools don’t want students who don’t want to be there. That said, I would not recommend backing out of such as agreement as it is wholly unfair to many people involved in the process. That said, very little is likely to happen to you personally if you do. YMMV, etc., etc.

Do the schools exchange lists of students they’ve accepted early decision/admission? Because I remember about twenty years ago, the top schools got into trouble for sharing the financial aid packages they were offering.

Many do. See here:

You do sign a contract that you will attend that school if accepted Early Decision. Whether the college wants to enforce that contract is up to them.

When we were applying for my daughter, I was concerned we would be accepted ED but without getting enough financial aid. I mentioned my concern and they told me that they would release us from the contract in a case like that. Most colleges probably wouldn’t press too hard if you don’t want to go, but it’s within their rights to sue you.

Thanks… that’s what I was looking for. Is there a centralized database of early-decision acceptances, or colleges really exchanging lists bilaterally?

For the record, in 1990, I declined an early decision offer and was sent a sternly worded letter. That was it. College admissions is a very different ballgame now, so I have no idea how things might have changed.

James’ Fallows article The Early Decision Racket nearly killed the ED program among the Ivies. Harvard announced in the early 2000s that it would no longer reject students who had broken ED commitments elsewhere, though I think they backed off that policy a bit.

As a matter of law, early decision contracts probably violate antitrust law and are thus voidable at the student’s election. They are clearly a restraint of trade and the onus would be on schools to justify them as somehow pro-competitive. The case Dewey Finn referenced above (US v. Brown University, 5 F.3d 658) was decided along basically these lines.

My grandson applied to both an early decision and an early action school. I think they both knew he was doing that. He was not accepted to the first and was to the second, but went to a third school.

Where I work, we don’t force compliance at all. There are always a handful of individuals who don’t enroll after an early decision, we account for that in our enrollment planning. We never want one individual student that badly, whatever, who cares. Our goal in ED is to be able to look at a cohort of people and use that collective information in making other enrollment decisions.

It will definitely come up if you decide to apply again as an undergraduate in a few years, say as a transfer. I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute automatic reject, but it would be a significant factor and the applicant might be asked to submit an answer explaining the situation. I work at a very large school and to be honest, it probably wouldn’t be something that is picked up on if the applicant applied to one of our graduate programs, so you’d be in the clear by then. That could be different at a smaller school.

There are also a number of students who take the initiative to contact us about a change in their situation (usually something sad, like a parent becoming ill or losing a job) that is forcing them to go to college closer to home. That is always totally cool, I wouldn’t make a student feel badly about that. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a correlation between the validness of the reason and the willingness of the student to reach out to the admissions office.

One thing we do pay attention to is if a particular high school has a high, repeated rate of ED students not enrolling after admission. That indicates an issue with the guidance department. We’ve called guidance counselors out on that.

This only matters at a certain level of college, right? Not at lower-end state colleges, community collleges, and such?

It’s up to the college, not all of them offer Early Decision. To some extent, it might be less of an issue at less competitive colleges. Early Decision is also less important (from the school’s perspective) to the very top of the top, I believe both Harvard and Stanford offer Early Action but not Early Decision.

Some community colleges do have early admit programs, and some are styled as ED – that’s not really my area of specialty, but my impression is that many such initiatives are aimed at high school students who might otherwise not apply to college at all.