After what seemed like years of waiting (but was actually more like 6-8 weeks) I started to hear back from the institutions to which I had applied. Something that was surprising was the lack of real information that admissions decisions included. I imagined the “fat envelope” that I remember from my undergraduate acceptances, but in reality what I was getting in the mail was usually a single page letter. Sometimes there were a few additional pages of information about how to access the online “accept or decline” form, but rarely more information than that was included. Where was the financial aid package? Where was the information about assistantships and student groups?
I know I’ve mentioned it a few times, but this is where cultivating relationships with staff assistants, office managers, and faculty at your prospective can really pay off. I found these folks incredibly helpful. Each institution is different (so pay particular attention to the materials provided by your prospective schools), but as a rule by including an institution on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) you will be considered for the general federal aid (grants and loans) at that institution. Some programs guarantee an assistantship and full-funding (tuition and stipend) for all students who are admitted, while others provide information about assistantships that are available and students can apply for each one they are interested in, like they would for any other job. Some departments have financial aid that is distributed through a competitive process that includes a separate application and essay, so be on the lookout for the details and deadlines.
When possible, I would suggest getting the full financial package and assistantship details in writing before accepting an offer of admission. As budgets get tighter this may be a discretionary line-item which departments can change from year to year, so if you are being told you’ll be guaranteed funding for 2 years, ask the department to put that in a letter for peace of mind. Once an offer of admission is made, it will be rare (and maybe illegal?) for an institution to rescind that offer because you want some specific details.
Understand that you will want to hear back from all of the institutions you applied to, but that by waiting you may be giving up opportunities at the institutions that let you hear back from the earliest. Most programs will work with you and be patient, but I did have some institutions that put deadlines on assistantships and financial support. You’ve been accepted because the program wants you there, but particularly in popular programs at selective institutions there will be people on a waitlist. Fortunately I had a complete picture from all of my institutions before I had to make a decision, but I could see where there would have been complications if timeline were a bit more different.
There is something to be said for declining offers with grace: do it. Especially with higher education being such a small field and everyone knowing everyone else, it is important not to burn bridges. You may be talking to a future colleague or employer, so make sure to be honest but polite about your enrollment decision. Most institutions will not ask what you are doing instead of enrolling, and you really don’t have to elaborate. Chalk it up to a better fit elsewhere, thanks them for the opportunity, and move on.
You did it! You’ve navigated the system, gotten admitted, and have your finances (essentially) pinned down. Next time I will begin a new series on the type of program I chose: a primarily distance-education Ed.D. cohort, designed for individuals working full-time in higher education.