National Decision Day, the day when students must notify their chosen college of their intent to enroll and pay their deposit, is May 1st of the senior year. However, this report as well as my own work with students suggests that many are making up their minds much earlier, even before financial aid packages are awarded, which usually happens in March or April.
This number is troubling, and likely an indicator of the want to be over and done with a process that can be riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. For most families the cost of college is a big factor in their decision where the student will attend. Yet, many of these same students and families start the enrollment process before having their financial aid award. You don’t truly know how much your education will cost until you have filed all financial aid forms (FAFSA, CSS Profile) and received the results of those filings from colleges.
My suggestion to parents and students is this: the fall application season is about creating smart options from which to choose in March or April, after you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you (admissions decisions, honors college decisions, scholarship offers, financial aid awards). When financial aid and costs truly are a driving factor, deciding in November, right after you get an admissions offer, where you will attend is premature. Why not wait and use these interim months (between the offer of admission and the time you get your financial aid award) to really compare on a deeper level the differences between your prospective schools?
I hear and understand the concern about housing, and it’s my opinion that colleges often use housing as leverage to entice students to deposit before they really need to do so. Here’s what I recommend: call the housing office. Ask about when housing actually fills up. Most colleges prioritize housing for freshman, and many guarantee it. Call and get the facts straight from the housing office itself before feeling the pressure to deposit from admissions.
Students, families, and college counselors work collaboratively for many months helping to create a smart list of colleges that will provide a good set of options for the student in the senior year. Let all those options play out before rushing into a decision, especially when cost is an important or decisive factor.