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College Merit Aid (or Lack Thereof) Makes Early Decision Ever Murkier

When I first posed this question to Mr. Kumarasamy, he suggested that it was a kind of gamesmanship. I objected to that, given that plenty of people don’t feel they can afford his $75,000 or so list price but can make it work at $50,000 with that merit aid discount. How can this be gaming the system, I asked, when he doesn’t give them any sense ahead of time of whether they might get that $25,000 off?

Eventually, he came around. “What is not good for the student is not good for any of us,” he said. But he was also quick to point out the zero-sum nature of early decision; if you bail out on an acceptance, you took the spot of someone else — perhaps someone even needier than you — who would have liked a shot at getting in early in the senior year of high school and actually accepting the school’s financial aid offer.

“There’s a difference between behavior that occurs in rare instances and behavior we want to encourage,” a Northeastern spokesman, Michael Armini, said via email.

I would like to encourage that behavior a bit more than Northeastern does, and I wish college counselors in high schools would, too.

It would be so much easier if none of this parsing was necessary, but early decision is going to be with us for a while because colleges like it so much. When enrollment managers (as they now often refer to themselves) admit a large fraction of a class at a point in the process where students feel obliged to go if they get in, it gives the schools great control over precisely what sorts of students are in any given class — and how much revenue they will deliver.

So as long as we’re stuck with a highly imperfect system, schools should say what percentage of students get merit aid in the early decision round, if they have one and also offer merit aid. All schools should also say what percentage of the overall class gets merit aid and explain how they’re defining the term.

They should say that early decision is not binding, and they should pledge not to punish future applicants from high schools where former applicants walked away from an early decision acceptance. They should also clarify whether they have a problem with people who decline an early decision offer because they didn’t get enough merit aid.

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