The most exciting part of the reception to my book Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents are the emails I get from parents who tell me that the book has changed their college plans completely.

They've realized that student loans are a disaster, that they shouldn't loot their retirement accounts or home equity to pay for college, and that their kid can great education almost anywhere if he's motivated about it.

But for some, the problem is this: Before they became committed to a financially prudent approach to college, their kids applied early decision to a first-choice school. By applying early decision, you commit to matriculating if the school accepts your application. Because you've already committed, you don't have the option of comparing -- and possibly negotiating -- financial aid offers.

Over at The Choice, the college blog of The New York Times, Jacques Steinberg reports that "the enduring popularity of binding early-decision programs this year has come into increasingly sharper focus." Early-decision admissions are up by more than 30% at Vanderbilt, and Bucknell, Dartmouth, Dickinson, Duke, Elon, Rice and Sarah Lawrence have also seen double-digit percentage increases.

New York University, which just rolled out a second round of early-decision admissions this year, saw 3,154 applications through the program.

How Binding Is That Early Decision Contract?


Many families, especially those with kids applying at financial aid toilet bowls like NYU -- where 59% of students graduate with an average of $33,487 in debt, not including parental borrowing -- have signed up for a program in which, if their dream comes true, the result will be the equivalent of an atomic bomb being dropped on the family's financial life.

If they've had second thoughts about such a disastrous financial plan -- perhaps after reading Debt-Free U -- they may be regretting that early-admissions application.

But it's too late: It's a "binding contract," right? Well, sort of.

Mark Montgomery, a private college counselor with Denver-based Montgomery Educational Consulting, said in an email that "In legal terms, there is not much that the college can or will do. On a practical plane, colleges can make the kid's life uncomfortable. If they find out what college the kid does decide to attend (ah, Facebook!), then they can tell the receiving college that the kid is a liar and a cheat. On that basis, the receiving college could conceivably rescind the offer."

But are colleges really so petty that they would troll the Internet to learn the plans of students who rejected them, then rat them out to the schools they chose, trying to ruin their lives? Montgomery suggests that if a family realizes it can't afford a college, they should try talking to the administrators there. "The kid, the parents, and the high school officials should be open and honest about the problem with the admissions office, and ask nicely to be released from the ED agreement."

That has a good chance of working, depending on how avaricious the school happens to be.

Don't Feel Guilty About Doing What's Best for Your Family


But if it doesn't work, here's my advice to families: Tell the high-priced school to go pound sand. They're not going to sue your kid for breaking an early-decision agreement, and your kid will still be able to go to college. And please, spare me the moral outrage. "But your kid gave his word! You made a commitment." Get a life. A commitment to NYU or Sarah Lawrence University (the most expensive college in America), is not worth torpedoing your family's financial life.

Really. It isn't.

If the idea of breaking that early-decision contract has you feeling guilty, or you're worried that it will impact your karma (or you think that God really cares whether your kid goes to SUNY-Albany instead of NYU), even it out by taking a few of the tens of thousands of dollars you'll save and making a tax-deductible contribution to The Critter Connection, a nonprofit group that rescues and rehabilitates neglected and abandoned guinea pigs.


Zac Bissonnette'
s Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents was called the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.

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