Early Decision Isn’t Binding. Let Us Explain.

Why doesn’t the Common App just say that?

“We’ve reviewed as a team and agree with your point that it could be worded more clearly, so we’ll be discussing internally about how to make edits for future application cycles,” Ms. Steele said in an email. (My request to talk this out over the phone was not successful.)

So how best to proceed, given that early decision isn’t going away?

I consulted Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of the admission counseling association, who previously oversaw the enrollment operation at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Together, we came up with some points students and parents should consider.

If you’re in the thick of it now, with acceptance letter in hand but a troubling financial aid offer, consider two things.

First, and most importantly, you must do what is right for you — and only for you. But there is a right way to ask for more money (or walk away): assume a demeanor of humble inquiry, not entitlement.

If things don’t improve, go with grace. Wish everyone well and explain, in detail, to your high school counselor what has happened and why and how seriously you took the matter before pushing the eject button. People in those roles have long-term relationships to preserve with colleges, for the benefit of future students.

What if you’re thinking about applying early decision in the future?

First, use schools’ net price calculators before applying to see what kind of aid they estimate that you will get if you get in. If the actual offer matches and your family circumstances haven’t changed since applying, it isn’t ethical to walk away because of the price. After all, you were warned.

With these estimates in mind, interrogate the feelings that emerge. Here, it’s worth considering a frustration that many admissions and financial aid professionals have shared with me over the years: Families may complain about their ability to pay when what is really at issue is their willingness to do so.