As college application season enters full swing, families should be having serious conversations about what applicant pool their child plans to apply to.  It matters to students’ admission chances and financial aid opportunities.  

First, let’s cover the four basic admission categories:

  • Rolling admissions- Usually common among less selective schools, these admissions policies allow applicants all year, basically, until they’ve filled their incoming class.
  • Regular Decision (RD)- Among colleges that don’t use rolling admissions, this is the latest possible deadline for students to apply (applications often due early January or February).
  • Early Action (EA)- Students applying EA usually have deadlines of November 1 or December 1. Many colleges reserve their best scholarship opportunities for students applying within this applicant pool.
  • Early Decision (ED)- As with EA, ED carries earlier deadlines of November 1 or December 1 and selective scholarship opportunities. However, Early Decision is a binding agreement. If you’re accepted to the school you apply ED, you are required to attend.  Although it’s not a legally binding agreement, it is an honor-bound agreement, one your high school counselor also has to sign off on. 

So what happens if you apply to a college Early Decision, are accepted, and then decide you no longer want to attend that school?


Policies vary by college, but most will let you off the hook without consequence if you can make a valid argument that the school is no longer feasible for you.  For example, the financial aid offer they sent you is just way out of your reach or you experience a significant family change that alters your college plans.

Are they going to sue you? Probably not. Will you owe them money? Maybe. It depends on the college.

Here’s where things get dicey, though.  Colleges talk to each other (the more highly selective, the more their admissions directors are in contact).  And yes, they talk about their applicants.  If you renege on an ED offer without an honest, compelling reason, it will damage your application at other schools you applied to as your safety nets. Some students have admission offers rescinded completely from other schools they’ve applied to. Colleges see backing out on an ED offer as a mark of poor character, and they punish students for it, sometimes in big ways. 

Perhaps a bigger issue could be the impact backing out on an ED acceptance has on your high school. The college is likely to call your school counselor and discuss the dishonorable act. These phone calls tend to come with a warning to the school that future students’ admission chances may be tarnished. The college, you see, sees its applicants as reflections of the high schools they come from. If you damage your relationship with a university by backing out on your ED acceptance, you could also damage your entire high school’s relationship with that university.

At the end of the day, applying Early Decision to any college is not something you should take lightly. Do your research, visit in person, ask questions, take advantage of net price calculators to make sure you can afford to attend, and be methodical and honorable in making this huge life decision.