The Moneyball of College Applications: Early Decision, Merit Aid and Need-Based Aid

One of the most frustrating problems for high school parents during the college planning process is the lack of quality data surrounding admissions. Some parents spend hours—or even days—assembling statistics from college websites and guidebooks.

To give you easier access to quality data, our colleagues Jennie Kent and Jeff Levy have released their 2018 admissions and aid analysis, with the latest statistics in two areas that can be critical in the college planning process:

 Based on this data, there are three trends that we'd suggest families consider in their planning.

1. Early Decision Matters

We live in an early decision world.

 Many highly selective colleges, including Vanderbilt, Pomona, Bates, Middlebury, Emory, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern, fill more than half their classes via the early decision pool. And the acceptance rates for these schools are often significantly higher during the early decision round of admissions.

The choice to apply early decision—instead of regular decision—is a scary one because it's binding. Your student needs to be sure that's where they want to go. But with the increased chances of acceptance, it's important to consider. To make the choice, families often look at what can be called the early decision ratio:

How much more likely is it that a student will be accepted early decision vs. regular decision.

As a frame of reference, the average college offering early decision has a 1.6 early decision to regular decision ratio and fills 30% of their class with early decision students. The numbers speak for themselves: It can certainly pay off from an acceptance standpoint to apply early decision to your top-choice college. And the higher that early decision ratio is, the more it can pay off.

Here's a look at the schools with the highest early decision ratios:

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Here is the data for Ivy League schools that report and Stanford:

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So if your student considers any of these colleges their top-choice school, applying early decision is a bet they might want to take.

2. Merit Aid Is Decreasing But Certain Schools Rise To The Top

As parents evaluate affordability, they often consider the average need met and merit aid data provided by colleges and universities on their student's list. Analyzing this data early can prevent roadblocks down the road.

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On the whole, data analyzed from these 600 colleges shows a decrease in the percentage of non-need undergraduates receiving aid and, in particular, merit aid in 2018. The dollar amount of the average merit aid award has also dropped.

Having said that, there are a number of schools that offer merit aid awards that are significantly higher than the average:

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Be sure to look closely at the numbers: For example, Duke's average merit aid is the highest ($69,506), but only 6% of students receive that kind of aid. Southern Methodist University, on the other hand, has an average aid of $25,304—less than half of Duke's—but 55% of students receive that merit aid.

Bottom line: It pays to do your research on the most generous colleges when it comes to merit aid. If you think your student might be eligible for merit aid, these are all excellent schools to consider, based on the data.

3. There Is A Need Met Gap Between Public Universities And Private Colleges

When looking at overall need met data (both merit and need-based), the widest disparity in percentage of need met exists between public universities and somewhat selective private colleges:

  • Highly selective colleges (Ivies and their immediate peers) can often meet 100% of domestic applicants’ demonstrated need. For example, Duke, Harvey Mudd, Middlebury College, MIT, and Pitzer College were among the highly selective schools that reported meeting 100% of need in 2016.

  • Selective private colleges generally meet between 60% to 100% of domestic applicants’ demonstrated need. For example, American University reported 73% need met, Baylor 65%, TCU 66%, SMU 85%, Case Western 83%, Grinnell 100%, and Sewanee 82%.

  • Public universities reported meeting between 45% to 99% of domestic applicants’ demonstrated need. For example, the University of Texas-Austin reported 70% need met, Texas A&M 72%, Colorado - Boulder 81%, and Colorado State 80%.