Why Do Colleges Charge Application Fees?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Unidentified person calculating application fees in a table.

Why Do Colleges Charge Application Fees?

When students think of applying to colleges and universities in the United States, one of the most significant considerations that students – and families of students applying to schools – need to make is how they will afford the tuition for an entire undergraduate education.

Preparing to apply to college incurs more expenses than just tuition. Another essential thing to remember is the cost of applying to schools through application fees. Why do colleges charge application fees?

At AdmissionSight, we make it our top priority to help students understand and prepare for the entire admissions process from start to finish. We believe that instilling this crucial information and ensuring no big surprises along the way help ensure a successful and stress-free experience.

While preparing to pay for application fees may seem like a relatively small and insignificant aspect of the application journey, just because it is small does not mean that it is not essential.

Young woman interviewing a student.

The truth is that when trying to get into some of the most prestigious and selective schools in the United States, no factor or consideration is too small. At least, that is what professional admissions consultants believe.

Over the last several years, working with admissions consultants has become quite popular for students all over the United States and the world. That is especially true for students interested in getting into some of the top schools in the world.

While students can go through the entire process alone, there is evidence that having an admissions consultant who can guide a student through the journey can dramatically improve a student’s chances of success.

After all, consider that approximately 3/4ths of the students we have worked with through the years have gone on to get into either an Ivy League school or a top 10 college or university that isn’t in the Ivy League.

When you remember that many of these schools have overall acceptance rates either slightly above or below 5.0 percent, it becomes abundantly clear just how big of a positive impact working with an admissions consultant can have for high school and transfer students.

So, to help you prepare for the exciting and challenging journey, we want to break down the most critical questions regarding application fees, like what’s the point of application fees? Or is there any way to get out of paying application fees?

Why do colleges have application fees?

Why do colleges have application fees? This simple question is the most reasonable place to start, so we thought we would get the simple answer to this question out of the way. For colleges and their admissions offices, the application cycle in each school year is the busiest and most chaotic tiar.

The applications submitted to a college cannot review themselves, after all, and even with advanced electronic verification systems that the vast majority of schools now use, the necessary review process of each application requires an admissions specialist.

Perhaps the most straightforward answer is that colleges and universities utilize these application fees to cover the selection and admission process costs. After all, reviewing and analyzing these applications costs money, and they must pay highly trained admissions officers to look over everyone. The cost of that is partially passed onto the applying students.

By charging a relatively small amount per application, schools can be sure they can pay their admissions employees to do the necessary work, looking over each application no matter how many applications come in. It’s essential to remember that many top schools worldwide have seen their highest (and second highest) application pools in the last two years.

Even the country’s most prestigious and selective schools see tens of thousands of applications yearly. That means a lot of work for existing admissions officers and has likely led to some universities employing even more individuals to work in their admissions offices.

On top of that, it is also essential to remember that some of the top schools in the country use the application fee to ensure that students are serious about attending the school. Some students would submit to hundreds of schools without a price and take the best option. Charging application fees forces schools to refine their lists to the schools they would be happy to attend, depending on specific circumstances and outcomes of their application journey.

So now that you know the answer to the question, “Why do colleges have application fees?” let’s break down some more information regarding this vital query.

Do all colleges and universities charge fees?

While charging application fees is most definitely the norm for schools in the United States, some schools don’t charge application fees at all. Other schools credit the application fee towards a student’s tuition, while others offer refunds for the application fee for students who are not ultimately accepted.

Still, most schools charge some application fees, and some of the most prestigious schools in the country (like Princeton or Stanford) charge relatively high prices.

Young man looking at his laptop.

The kinds of schools that tend not to charge any application fee include online schools, Christian schools, and some liberal arts schools. Schools that do not charge application fees are often demonstrating inclusiveness. They want to encourage everyone to apply.

Thus, anyone can go through the admissions process. If it’s important to you, research which colleges don’t charge application fees. To get you started, here are some of the most popular or highest-rated schools in the United States that have no application fee:

  • Wellesley College
  • Tulane University
  • Colby College
  • Grinnell College
  • Carleton College
  • Macalester College
  • Smith College
  • Kenyon College
  • Trinity University
  • Colorado College
  • Reed College
  • Michigan Technological University
  • Wheaton College
  • Saint Louis University
  • University of Dayton
  • Creighton University

How much do application fees typically cost?

So, you now know the answer to the question, “What’s the point of application fees?” However, there are a lot more questions that you likely have about the process. Perhaps the most important one is how much an application fee typically costs.

Across the board, colleges and universities set their application fees based on how many applications they receive on average per year. Schools will also charge a higher amount based on how selective and competitive the admissions process is. Therefore, students need to make a comparison because the costs can add up if they apply to a handful of colleges at any given time. It can be helpful if at least a few offer students a fee waiver.

Regarding what you can expect to pay per school, the US News & World Report looked at 889 schools and found that the average application fee is $45.00. The highest application in the 2021-22 application cycle was $100. The typical price at tier 1 or top 10 schools was $75. Stanford boasted an application fee of $90, while Duke University charged $85 per student.

From that information, we can confidently deduce that students can expect to pay between $45 and $100 per school. Because most students likely pick between several dream schools, sure best and safety schools, chances are pretty good that you will pay several different application fees throughout your application journey.

With that in mind, students must know that there are some ways for students to reduce or altogether remove application fees connected to many schools in the country. These are often based on several different circumstances.

What is an application fee waiver?

Now that you know the answer to the question, “Why do colleges have application fees?” and the average price of application fees for undergraduate students, you are likely wondering, “Is there any way to get out of paying application fees?”

The simple answer to this question is yes, but whether you can apply for a fee waiver will depend on some unique circumstances.

The truth is that many schools offer fee waivers. Even Ivy League schools like Harvard University provide fee waivers. You can usually find more information on application fee waivers through a school’s financial aid department. If it needs clarification, a fee waiver allows students to apply to a particular school while getting the entire fee waived, making the application accessible.

Using a laptop to type in a table.

The first step you must take when accessing a fee waiver is to determine whether you qualify. This will depend on your family’s yearly income, as fee waivers are meant to make applying to schools easier for lower-income individuals. Students who receive an SAT fee waiver also qualify for fee waivers from participating schools.

Though colleges do need the application fees to pay for their admissions offices to look through all of the applications in a given year, they also fully understand that the financial strain can be too much for students. However, application fees are not simply available to anyone who wants them; there are strict guidelines that students need to meet to be eligible.

For most students, fee waivers will not be an option. For that reason, you must get financially ready for the entire process. Whether you or your parents plan on paying your application fees, it is wise to set aside some money to ensure you have what you need to pay for all your expenses. That way, you can ensure you are not limited to where and how many schools you can apply to.

Other ways to avoid paying application fees

While application fee waivers are the most common ways that students avoid paying fee servers, there are other ways that students can either remove or reduce fees connected to applying to schools. Here are the most common ways to keep in mind.

The reasons colleges have application fees make a lot of sense, but that does not mean those reasons have to apply to all students. Despite qualifying for an application fee waiver, other ways exist to get out of application fees.

Apply to a school via early admissions

One common way students avoid paying an application fee is by applying early to a school. Many schools love it when students use it before because it gives the admissions office more time to process the application. On top of that, many schools offer binding or restrictive forms of early admissions, meaning that they serve as a sort of added boost of confidence from the students that if they get into that school, they will apply.

As a result, schools often offer to waive fees for prospective students who do decide to apply early. However, there are some caveats to keep in mind. First, this option is typically only available at smaller schools rather than highly prestigious ones like those in the Ivy League or other top 10 institutions.

Schedule a campus visit

This will likely cost more than the application fee, but you can kill two birds with one stone if you schedule a campus visit day. Schools will often waive application fees for students who do this. Make sure to arrange it with the school’s admissions office and confirm that they waive application fees for students who take official visits.

If you need guidance on how best to do this, you can speak with your high school counselor; they should help set up an official college visit.

Apply online

This isn’t as common today, but some schools still offer free applications if students apply online. This is because it makes the job easier for schools than mail-in applications. You can easily find this out by seeing if the school offers college application fee waivers for students who apply online.

Young woman working on something in her laptop.

Prove that it will cause financial hardship

This is perhaps the most common way that students get out of paying application fees, and that is because there are genuinely some students who will have to experience a financial strain if they are forced to spend the money connected to application fees.

If you are struggling financially, don’t let it stop you from getting a college education. Many students are in the same boat. So, contact the school’s financial aid office to see available programs. They will usually have you fill out a statement of financial need.

How Can You Navigate Application Fees Smartly?

Navigating the labyrinthine world of college admissions is already a Herculean task, and the added burden of application fees can make it even more daunting. You might wonder why colleges charge application fees in the first place.

While the reasons vary, from administrative costs to screening applicants, the fees are here to stay. But don’t despair; innovative ways exist to navigate these costs without breaking the bank.

The key is approaching the application process strategically, focusing on three main pillars: budgeting, research, and timing. By mastering these elements, you can minimize the financial impact and maximize your chances of getting into your dream college.

Budgeting: Planning your finances for the application season.

Budgeting is the cornerstone of any financial endeavor, and applying to colleges is no exception. Before filling out applications, sit down and assess your financial situation. Create a spreadsheet or use a budgeting app to track all the potential costs, not just the application fees.

Think about other expenses like sending test scores, traveling for interviews, or even the postage for mailing documents. Once you have a comprehensive list, allocate funds for each college you apply to.

Colleges charge application fees ranging from $50 to $90 or more, so these costs add up quickly when applying to multiple schools. Prioritize your list of colleges based on your budget and academic aspirations.

This way, you’re not just throwing money into an application black hole but investing in opportunities that align with your goals.

Research: Knowing which colleges offer waivers or reduced fees.

Research is your best friend when it comes to mitigating the costs of application fees. Many colleges offer fee waivers for students who demonstrate financial need, while others may waive the price if you visit the campus or attend a virtual information session.

Female student holding a pen while looking distracted.

Some colleges even participate in programs that allow you to apply for free if you’re applying to multiple institutions within the same network. Colleges charge application fees but offer various avenues to alleviate this burden.

Therefore, digging deep into each college’s admissions policies and financial aid options is crucial. Check their websites, call the admissions office, or consult with your high school counselor to gather this information. The more you know, the better you can strategize how to apply without incurring excessive costs.

Timing: When to apply to take advantage of fee discounts or waivers.

Timing is everything, especially when trying to save money on application fees. Some colleges offer early bird discounts for students submitting their applications before the deadline.

Others have specific periods during which they waive the application fee as part of a promotional or outreach program. Colleges charge application fees, but they also have cycles and seasons where they’re more lenient with these charges.

Mark these dates on your calendar and set reminders so you don’t miss out on these opportunities. If you’re considering applying for Early Decision or Early Action, check if these options come with reduced fees; sometimes, colleges incentivize these early commitments with financial perks.

But remember, timing isn’t just about deadlines; it’s also about giving yourself ample time to gather all the necessary materials and information to make your application stand out. The earlier you start, the more options you’ll have to avoid or reduce application fees, making your college application journey less stressful and more strategic.

Let AdmissionSight help you navigate the application process.

The truth is that every student’s application process will be very different depending on how many schools they plan on applying to, what kinds of schools they will target, and what their application profile looks like. Knowing why colleges have application fees can help you feel better about the several hundred dollars you will likely spend to apply to the schools you have targeted.

At AdmissionSight, we have worked with students from before they even entered high school and to the final decision-making process of identifying the school that is the best option for them to attend.

We have even worked with some students past that point, helping them transfer from a community college or a four-year program to another college or university, as well as helping students prepare and apply for grad school.

Thanks to our experience, we know exactly how students can maximize their application experience and find the right schools for them. No matter where you are currently in the process of preparing to apply to college, if you are interested in learning more and finding out what admissions consultants can do to help improve your overall experience as well as your chances of getting in, contact us at AdmissionSight today to schedule a free consultation. We can’t wait to talk about your exciting future.



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