While the official deadline for making a college decision is May 1, thousands of students across the United States already have been admitted to the schools of their choice. Many also have received financial aid offers, thanks to a new timetable from the Department of Education, which moved up the start date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to Oct. 1 from Jan. 1.
Yet making an educated decision about which school to attend is hard for admitted students because financial aid information is not available from all of them.
"My families are just freaking out. It's almost too much time to be waiting," says college financial aid consultant Jodi Okun.
Traditionally, colleges distributed financial aid letters to admitted students in mid-March. But some institutions, such as Kalamazoo College in Michigan and the University of Denver, moved up their financial aid award notifications as well, sending out letters to admitted students immediately. College funding expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Cappex.com, estimated that half to two-thirds of colleges are sending out some kind of real award letters to already-accepted students.
Schools with admitted students at this point in the year would be those with rolling admissions as well as early decisions (a binding commitment) and action (which can wait until May 1). The majority of students, however, will not receive acceptances until March or later, with their financial aid packages arriving shortly after.
It has not been easy for schools to juggle the new deadlines. The College of Wooster, a Scottish-Presbyterian institution in Wooster, Ohio, had to accelerate all sorts of other deadlines in order to get aid letters out in January to the first batch of accepted students.
That included moving up auditions for competitive scholarships, which caused a bit of a space crunch when it came to bagpipers needing an indoor space to try out in January, as opposed to being able to do it outdoors in March.
"It was an organizational challenge," said W. Scott Friedhoff, Wooster's vice president for enrollment and college relations. And not just for the institution: "Now families have to be a little more alert about deadlines that have changed."
The intention of the new timeline is to provide a bigger window for consideration of financial options. In particular, families can appeal for more aid if they feel the award is not adequate, Kantrowitz said.
Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, is making it easier for admitted students to talk over their financial aid offers this year. It had a visiting day last Saturday with slots every 20 minutes to ask questions, and filled every one.
The timeline benefits some schools too. Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, is using the new calendar to counter competitors who give out merit aid. In the past, the students it coveted were already spoken for by the time the school sent out need-based offers.
"This levels the playing field for bottom-dollar costs," said Thomas Ratliff, the school's associate vice president.
More time also gives high school seniors a chance to re-visit schools and do all-important things like taste the food, which Kantrowitz urges students to take seriously.
"It is a real consideration for some," he said. "They arrive on campus and form a first impression. More time will allow them to make a more deliberative, informed impression."
But the early aid offers have drawbacks too, most notably, accelerating the age-old senior slide. "You get in, you get a great offer, it gives you more time to slack off," Kantrowitz warned. "Offers of admission are conditional - they are dependent on final grades. If you have a serious slump, the school could rescind the offer."
Another potential negative exists for the type-A student who is driven, anxious and unable to wait. Okun has a client who got into her dream school, the University of San Francisco, and received her award letter. But she is not celebrating yet because she has to wait for award letters from the other six schools on her list.
"I keep telling her, 'I know it's hard,'" Okun said. "But talk to the school, revisit, and decide if you can really afford it."