“Your Prices Way Too High, You Need to CUT IT”: A Rant about College App FEES

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Real talk.

WHY ARE COLLEGE APPLICATION FEES SO DAMN HIGH?!

You would think that giving the gift of education and knowledge to the youth and our nation’s future would be enough for colleges and universities.

Now, before I get blasted for “Colleges need sources of funding” and “Admissions Officers need to get paid” and “Processing applications, believe it or not is expensive”…

Are you telling me that Harvard University, with its $37 BILLION endowment, has to charge $75 for an application, on top of the cost of sending scores and transcripts, visiting schools, and if we believe that time is money, the dozens of hours spent on the application on the first place? Don’t they know that between the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Tests they implicitly force us to take for a chance at acceptance, that you are already set back by at least $650? Don’t tell me they don’t know. And don’t tell me they don’t know that you’re probably applying to at least 6 other schools with application fees just as high, if not higher, who each need scores, transcripts, extensive resumes, and the like as well.

If you go through the entire process, testing, transcripts, AP tests, application fees, a prep book or two here and maybe a campus visit there, you are set back at least $5,000* bucks. You know it, I know it. That is not a trivial amount of money. All to get a rejection letter. Like, BOI. Fix it.

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Plus, their arguments don’t even make sense. The less selective a college, (typically) the less expensive their application fees- yet they don’t have MULTIBILLION DOLLAR ENDOWMENTS. How interesting? I don’t mean to blast Harvard (Stanford, with you asking for ALMOST A HUNDRED DOLLARS, you’re on the hook too) or anything (much respect), but it seems kind of unfair to exploit the hopes and dreams of people by charging them extra to supply them with their name, a history of their past years of high school, and a 650 word essay. They already have more money than they know what to do with, but let’s just run the pockets of cash-strapped middle-class high schoolers dry because they have the misfortune of wanting to apply. (Sorry, I know that the salt is seeping through the pores. If you’re reading this, Harvard, please forgive me. Being broke is just not my preferred M.O.)

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Selective colleges repeatedly tell the American public, parents, and applicants that they want to increase access. Sure, fee waivers are available, but for those of us with the misfortune of being “well-off” enough to not qualify for fee waivers but too broke for $5000 to be negligible, we’re stuck paying the price with not much relief. It’s hard to increase access to colleges when the largest percentage of college-going Americans are put at a disadvantage when wanting to infiltrate the prestigious ivy-covered walls of our nation’s elite universities. Increasing access means truly opening the doors at all levels of the process. Yes, offering incredibly generous financial aid for all kinds of familial financial situations, from poverty to suburban middle-class, is beyond helpful and admirable, and Harvard* (and the rest of the universities of this nation with similar policies), I applaud you. But if students are deterred or unable to apply in the first place to reap the benefits of such wonderful policies, then are we anywhere truly further than where we were when we began? More people can afford to attend, but what about the people who can’t afford to apply?

One elite school that has it right is the University of Chicago, a school that truly “walks the walk” with an admissions philosophy of “No Barriers” . They do not charge an application fee to any of their applicants in the name of allowing access to anyone and everyone that is interested in their university to apply, point blank. UChicago has a fraction of Harvard and Stanford’s endowment, yet they seem to be getting along just fine by dropping these fees in favor of increasing access to their university. I don’t advocate for all universities to take such a drastic, albeit admirable, approach, as I understand that application fees do help pay overburdened admissions officers, fulfill institutional needs, and keep things moving at universities. But if you’re going to waive tuition if a student’s family makes under $100,000, might as well waive the application fee too. I feel as if a similar approach that is taken to financial aid, by which different income levels have different sorts of expectations on what to pay, would truly make a difference in terms of access and affordability to middle-class students applying to these schools (the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, just so you know).

$75 is a drop in the bucket to Harvard. $90 is just another line to the coffers at Stanford. But to my family, that’s a week worth of groceries. Combined with the other outrageous costs of college (@CollegeBoard), it’s stressful, and frankly, burdensome. I am lucky to not qualify for fee waivers- but in the end, I am the unluckiest of all.

*I am using Harvard in metonymical way to refer to the whole cluster of elite postsecondary institutions in the United States, whose average application rate is at least $80. If it sounds like I am being extra-harsh on Harvard, I am sorry. They just stand out as being one of the most prestigious colleges- the perfect poster-child for my ranting needs against all of these institutions who have high application fees.

*If you think I am exaggerating with my $5,000 figure, then you must either a) not be going through the admissions process as a parent or student b) must have gone through it a long time ago c) you’re not counting. But for the sake of believing in a facts-based approach, here are my estimations below.

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  1. Application Fees: Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? Typical American students looking at elite colleges apply to at least nine colleges overall- for many, a lot more. US News and World Report says that the national average, the highest in American history, is $37.88. But for elite, selective colleges, that average hovers around the $70 mark. With the assumption that there are at least 6 colleges on a student’s list which fits the bill, that’s $420- just considering the average. But if a student’s list includes schools like Columbia, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Duke, MIT, Princeton and Brown (which many students include, in part or in whole, to their application list), the average application fee is higher, at $78.33, jacking up that average of $420 to a higher (and slightly more realistic) $470.
  2. SAT and ACT: $60 (rounded). These tests are typically taken about 3 times (just a guesstimate, since the figures are not online, but seems accurate), so that’s $180. Score reports are $12 each, and many selective schools require you to submit all sittings of standardized testing. So with the average student looking at selective schools applying to at least 9 universities, that is $108 in score reports alone- assuming just 2 colleges on their list need all reports, with a high-end average of three times taking the SAT, that number jumps to $144. Altogether, that’s $324.
  3. AP Tests: For students applying to elite institutions, students take an average of about 8-10 tests across their high school career (official numbers out, but this is a reasonable guesstimate as well). Each test is about $90-$95 depending on the year. based on this year’s figure of $93, multiplied by total amount of tests taken, that is $930. With $15 per report to each school, (let’s be generous and say only 3 schools require official score reports at application time), that is still $450. Altogether, AP Tests can cost $1370– and this is just at the average marker.
  4. Transcripts: Many schools charge per official transcript sent, anywhere from $2 to $10. With an estimation of $5 being the average charge, alongside the prior 9 school per student estimate, that is $45 spent- on AVERAGE.
  5. Prep: Many students looking at top schools are incredibly determined to get in, and buy standardized prep books as well as admissions guides to get a leg up. Since admissions guides are a little more nebulous, we will just place a $50 flat rate on their use. For standardized tests, we can assume that students will get 4-5 books total: the official book, a prep book from a brand like Barron’s, The Princeton review, etc., and relevant prep books for SAT Subject Tests (two are typically recommended). With an average of $20 per book (can be cheaper or more expensive depending on the place), that is at least $80. Expensive prep courses are less ubiquitous, but still generally common, and can cost $500 overall. Altogether, That is $630 on the high-average, $150 at the lower-end average.
  6. Campus Visits: Campus visits are typical and common- and can also be pretty expensive. Most middle-class students try to at least visit about half of the schools on their list- some take cross-country trips to tour regional schools that catch their fancy. For all campus visits, with gas/plane costs, food costs, hotel costs if associated, there are at least $1000 spent- that is being generous.
  7. Hidden Fees: Signing up late for a standardized test of any kind (and there will be one) is $30. College admissions counselors, if one decides to get one, is upwards of a thousand dollars.  A writing or essay coach is not much less expensive. A resume-boosting summer program, at the minimum is $700 (and typically waaaayyy more expensive). The prices of club dues, activities, piano and tennis lessons, being driven to soccer everyday for four years, going to debate tournaments, taking community college classes, participating in online enrollment, buying books for AP Lit class, a brand new computer for all the essays you have to write for English, the tutor you hire to help you through AP Calc BC and Statistics, spending money and sign-up fees for field trips as part of many organizations, and just the ridiculous costs associated with becoming a prime candidate for such schools, are dizzying and everywhere. A hidden fee will crop up at some point- definitely multiple. We can estimate reasonably there will be, throughout the career of a high schooler gunning for these elite schools, at least $800 worth of them. For me, there have been over $2,000. Don’t believe me? Just look up the costs of some of these things. Some students are lucky to have schools cover some costs- many don’t. It adds up.

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Altogether, my calculations come down to $4,639- and that’s at the lower-end or estimated averages for these costs. For many students, these fees add up to much higher, as you add on more schools, tests, and hidden fees. So yeah, $5,000 is not trivial or a random amount I spit out. It’s my reality, and the reality of thousands of middle-class, even low-income students out there, desperate for a chance at one of these schools, doing whatever it takes to get there- even if it means indebting their families and facing small financial ruin.

The least Harvard* (see above) can do, is drop their frickin’ application fee. It’s Harvard, not heaven, for god’s sake.

As the great philosopher OT Genesis once said, “Your prices way too high, you need to CUT IT!”

Me @ schools when I apply in the fall:

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With much salt (and soon to be empty pockets):

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