Early decision time sits just around the corner, and the quandary college hopefuls face resembles an entrance exam with a stumper question. Get in, and you’re off to what could be your dream school. But if another school comes along with a much better financial aid package, how do you honor the original early decision and pay for everything? If you don’t know the answer, you could wind up with less money and a shortfall of funding—meaning your first choice academically may not square with your top option financially.

Managing this balancing act requires a combination of strategy and thoughtful planning, experts say. Here are crucial steps to ensure that the quest for early decision reflects smart decisions before and after you apply.

Scholarship chances may decrease.

“Submitting an early decision may compromise your merit scholarship award, but will unlikely affect financial aid awards,” says Hans Hanson, owner of Total College Advisory. That’s something to consider if you’re counting on those awards, though it’s always possible to apply for scholarships outside of the early decision school. These can be based on factors such as ethnicity or religious denomination.

Factor in the timing.

If you request an early decision and get in, it’s not only binding—it also comes around mid-December, while your backup colleges won’t reveal their aid packages until March or April. “Most early decision colleges will allow you to opt out of the agreement if a suitable financial award package is not offered and the college remains unaffordable.” Hanson says. “However, you may have compromised acceptances elsewhere by the time this determination is made.” That’s a lose-lose scenario you want to avoid at all (college) costs.

Calculate costs in advance.

No, we’re not talking about school sweatshirts and gear. First and foremost, get a parent or parents involved—then get to work, says Stephanie P. Kennedy, founder of My College Planning Team. “The family making this choice had better be certain that they can pay the price,” she says. “A family can initially determine their cost of attendance by using the college’s most up-to-date net price calculator.”

Finally: If you’re accepted early to your school of choice but short on paying for it, you can bridge the gap between aid and costs with private student loans. It definitely helps to estimate tuition, room and board in advance, assuming little or no aid. That said, private student loans offer significant advantages. First, students can start on the road to building a credit history, an essential that will help them in young adulthood and beyond. Second, even small monthly repayments over the course of enrollment can allow borrowers to repay the loans in a reasonable amount of time.

It’s important to make those payments on time, just as you’d turn in major papers to your professors by the due date. Do that and you’ll surely earn an “A” in financial intelligence once it’s time to don that cap and gown.

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