early college admissions deadline

Can You Renege On Your Early Decision Agreement?

Students who have been accepted by a college or university through its Early Decision (ED) process should consider themselves fortunate, and most do. They’ve applied to a school that’s at or near the top of their target list and been admitted before their fellow students have even applied for the regular admissions cycle. They can rest easier than their classmates and enjoy the rest of their senior year without the stress of college admissions hanging over their heads.

And yet, some students who have been accepted through an ED plan later want to renege on their agreement. Events have occurred that make them regret their ED commitment. They want to know if their ED agreement is binding. Can they just blow it off with impunity?

The answer isn’t simple. Yes, it’s binding, but no, an ED agreement isn’t a contract that, if breached, could subject you to civil liability. You, your high school guidance counselor, and your parents signed an ED agreement that stipulates that you understand its binding effect and that you are committing to attend the school if admitted.

Let’s consider more closely the ED agreement that you signed and submitted with your application. A majority of the schools that offer ED plans do so under the Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), which guides the school’s treatment of students. In addition, as part of the agreement, ED applicants, parents, and guidance counselors must sign as well.

Section II of NACAC’s Statement, “The Responsible Practice of College Admission”, includes the following:

“Restrictive early application plans: a. Early Decision (ED): Students commit to a first choice college and, if admitted, agree to enroll and withdraw their other college applications. Colleges may offer ED I or II with different deadlines. This is the only application plan where students are required to accept a college’s offer of admission and submit a deposit prior to May 1.”

What you’re agreeing to should be clear when you submit an ED application. While pursuing admission under an ED plan, students may (generally) apply to other institutions under an Early Action (EA) plan, but they may have only one ED application pending. If an ED candidate is denied or deferred, they are automatically released from the agreement.

Let’s review what sorts of changes in a student’s life will induce the school to release them from their ED commitment after acceptance. But before we do that, you should also be aware of what may happen if you choose to simply ignore your ED agreement to accept an offer of admission from another school.

As noted above, ED agreements aren’t legally binding. However, they are still binding, allowing schools to take steps to assure that applicants abide by them.

You might wonder why a top-tier school even cares if you break your ED agreement. After all, if they only admit, say, 10% of applicants, they can easily fill your slot with another well-qualified applicant. Schools care because they use ED as a valuable tool to improve both the quality of their incoming freshmen class and their yield rate. Yield is the percentage of students who have been offered admission and accept their offers. They then matriculate at the school in the fall. Yield is an important variable in planning, so admissions offices strive to manage it effectively. If students admitted under an ED plan can renege with impunity, the purpose of ED is defeated and its value to the school is nullified.

On the other hand, a school is reluctant to compel a student to attend if he or she doesn’t want to be there. So the school whose ED acceptance you spurn isn’t going to come after you with bloodhounds and a posse. “In some ways, early decision is a gentleman’s agreement”, according to Dave Tobias, vice president of enrollment for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

However, when a student backs out of ED agreement without cause, it raises a significant ethical issue. Therefore, high school guidance counselors and elite institutions take action in order to discourage similar behavior by future applicants admitted via ED. Examples of these actions include the following:

  • A common ED plan is offered by five Ivy League schools; Brown, Penn, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth. If an ED applicant is admitted to one of these schools, they must accept it or they will not be eligible for admission to any of the others. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton participate in a similar common plan.
  • Many high school guidance counselors stop sending transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other necessary admissions materials for students who have applied to a school via ED until they know the outcome. The guidance counselor’s reputation is at stake as well as her or his credibility with college admissions offices.
  • Thirty top-tier liberal arts colleges share lists of students admitted to each of them via ED so that the others don’t unwittingly admit them. They also share the names of students who were admitted via ED but were released from their commitments for various reasons.
  • If an admissions office finds out that a student has applied to their school and another school via ED, they’ll contact the other school. The student therefore risks being denied consideration by both schools.
  • Often, it’s easy for an admissions office to discover that a student is gaming the system because their high school guidance counselor is aware of what the student is doing. He or she may contact the affected schools.

As mentioned above, there are a number of legitimate reasons why a school will release a student from an ED commitment without negative repercussions. A few common examples are shown below:

  • A necessary financial aid package with the institution didn’t develop as hoped.
  • A parent or other family member died. Attendance at a distant school is no longer desirable or feasible.
  • A family business or parent’s career has suffered a severe setback.
  • The student or close family member has suffered a serious health issue.

An ED agreement is a serious undertaking, often one of the first such commitments that you’ll make in your lifetime. You should make every effort to adhere to that agreement. With the assistance of your IvySelect college admissions counselor, you’ll understand the commitment you’re making. You’ll have a solid strategic admissions plan in place developed especially for you as an individual.

To understand all the options so you can decide which suit you best, seek professional guidance from IvySelect.

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