What Happens to Students Who Back Out of an Early Decision Offer?

Applying early decision to your top-choice college can give you an admissions advantage. But you’ll want to keep in mind that this comes with a binding agreement — if you get accepted, you are obligated to attend that school.

There are some acceptable reasons for backing out of an early decision offer, like a change in your financial or personal circumstances. But if you simply have a change of heart, you will likely face negative consequences, such as losing any deposits and potential reputation issues with other schools.

Before applying to a college early decision, you’ll want to make sure you understand the commitment you’re making. Read on to find out if early decision is legally binding and how you can get out of early decision without facing penalties.

What Is Early Decision?

Early decision is a college application process in which students apply to their preferred college early in their senior year of high school, typically by November 1 or November 15, depending on the school.

When you apply early decision, you are agreeing that, if accepted, you will attend that school the following fall. As a result, you should not apply to multiple schools under early decision — if you are caught, it can result in one or both schools revoking your acceptance letters.

Colleges let early decision applicants know if they were accepted or not in mid to late December, giving students enough time to apply to other schools should they get rejected. Typical college application deadlines are in early January to mid-February.

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Why Apply for Early Decision?

One of the benefits of applying to college early decision is being able to find out whether or not you’ve been accepted to the school at the top of your list early in the application cycle. If you get in, you can then take a deep breath and relax and not worry about the usual Senior year checklist.

Applying early decision also signifies your commitment to a specific college or university, which may give you a leg up in getting in. Indeed, colleges often have a higher acceptance rate for early decision applicants than for regular decision applicants. For example, Duke University accepted 16.4% of early decision applicants for the class of 2027, while regular applications experienced a 4.8% acceptance rate.

That said, early decision isn’t for everyone. If you’re not sure where you want to go to college, it’s probably not wise to apply early decision. If how to pay for college is a chief concern, keep in mind that you will not be able to compare financial aid packages from other schools if you apply early decision.

How Does Early Decision Compare to Other Admission Deadlines?

Early decision is just one of several college admission deadlines, each with its own pros and cons. Here’s a look at how early decision compares to other admission deadlines.

Early Action

Unlike early decision, early action is non-binding. Students must adhere to the same application deadline as early decision (November 1 or 15), but there’s no obligation to enroll if you’re accepted. Early action applicants can expect a response from the school by mid-December and don’t need to make a decision until May 1. You can apply to more than one school early action, since it’s non-binding.

Regular Decision

Regular decision is the standard application process with a later deadline, typically some time between early January and mid-February. It is non-binding, and students can apply to multiple colleges. Admission decisions for regular decision applicants are usually released in mid-March to early April and require a response by May 1.

Rolling Admissions

Colleges with rolling admission allow you to submit your application within a wide time frame, usually six months or so, and review applications as they come in. Typically, they will then send out admission decisions within four to six weeks, accepting students until all open slots for the incoming class have been filled. Schools with rolling admission generally start accepting applications around September 1 and continue well into the spring semester.

Is There a Penalty for Backing Out of Early Decision?

Early decision isn’t a legal contract, but backing out of an early decision agreement typically has consequences. If a college admits a student under an early decision plan, the expectation is that the student will enroll for the upcoming fall semester and withdraw any early action or regular decision applications from other schools.

Some schools actually require a deposit with your early decision application. If you back out of your agreement, you likely won’t get this money back.

Colleges also communicate with each other. If your early decision school lets other schools know you reneged on your agreement, it could have a negative impact on your applications to schools you are interested in attending.

There are exceptions, however. If you back out of an early decision agreement for a valid reason, you can likely get off the hook without any negative repercussions. For example, you may be able to break your agreement without issue if you receive a financial aid package that’s different from what you anticipated, making it difficult for you to afford the cost of attendance.

Colleges also understand if extenuating circumstances prevent a student from honoring their commitment, including an illness or death in the family that leads a student to defer enrolling for a semester or year.

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What to Do if You Can No Longer Attend Your Early Decision School

If you find you have to back out of an early decision offer, you’ll want to get in contact with the college’s admissions department as quickly as possible. The sooner you let them know, the more likely they will be to work with you. They can let you know what your next steps should be. Without a good excuse, however, it is likely any deposits or payments you’ve made so far won’t be refunded.

If your reason for backing out is insufficient financing, you may want to discuss this with the college’s financial aid office. Some schools may be willing to reevaluate a student’s financial aid package if there has been a substantial change in the family’s financial situation.

If you stick with your withdrawal decision, you’ll next need to apply to other colleges, assuming you are still planning to go to college in the fall. Most colleges have an application deadline in January, so if you made the decision to back out of early decision sooner rather than later, you likely still have time.

Keep in mind that if you reneged on your early decision application without a valid reason, the school may share this information with other colleges. As a result, you may want to cast a wide net, including plenty of safety schools.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Start Preparing For College

The Takeaway

Applying to a college early decision requires making a commitment. However, the early decision agreement you (and your parents) sign is not legally binding. In other words, the college can’t force you to pay tuition and come to their school.

If you back out of your early decision agreement for a valid reason, such as not getting the financial aid offer you were expecting or unforeseen change in your circumstances, you may be able to get out of the contract without any negative consequences.

If, on the other hand, you back out simply because you changed your mind, you could potentially lose money (if the school required a deposit with your application) and the school may share this negative information about you with other colleges, doing harm to your reputation.

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Photo credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

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