Application Fees

By: Coriander Mulvey

Application fees are payments submitted to the educational institution by the applicant as part of their application; they’re required for one’s application to be considered. US News’ 2022 annual survey found that the average application fee for the 889 colleges and universities studied was $45, and the most expensive fee was Arkansas Baptist College’s $100 fee.[1] The New School’s application fee is $50. The application fee is entirely for the purpose of generating revenue for the university receiving the application to pay for the labor of reviewing the application and to create a financial barrier to only receive “serious” applications. Application fees have the potential to make several million dollars for a university per year.[2]  When it comes to the college application process in the United States, many U.S. students applying to undergraduate programs want to apply to multiple programs to increase their chances at acceptance, but nonrefundable application fees, even for one application to one institution, can be a financial barrier for prospective students. Application fee waivers are available to U.S. based students, through their guidance counselors, if they take the SAT with a fee waiver, if they or their family financially qualify.[3] However, this seems to me to be a potentially bureaucratically difficult process for low-income students. A lot of responsibility seems to fall on the student’s high school guidance counselor, and that can become difficult for students who may need to advocate for themselves to get these fee waivers – if they are even aware of them. It also is important to note that while many colleges in the United States do accept fee waivers, not all do. 

To me it seems that the application fee is the starting point for the financial disconnect between the needs of the institution and the needs of the individual student – a rupture that encompasses many issues in academia, such as student loan debt, high tuition fees, the lack of livable wages for graduate students, and food insecurity on campuses.  The application fee is only one expense that students are expected to pay during the application process – or expenses that they can incur in order to enhance their likelihood of college acceptance – such as standardized testing fees, travel expenses related to visiting campuses for tours or interviews, and standardized testing preparation classes, not to mention the expenses associated with matriculation including and beyond the exorbitant deposits, tuition, and fees. To reiterate, the application fee is something akin to a glass ceiling for students; those who can pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to apply to many universities have a better chance of being accepted to a college or university than those who can not afford these fees and who do not qualify or access fee waivers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the first reason given to support application fees, which is to pay for the labor of reviewing applications. Labor issues in academia are critical right now, and as we have seen in the legacy of The New School[4] and the many protests and strikes happening across the United States, where people are advocating for livable wages for adjunct faculty and graduate students. Labor must absolutely be compensated, but not at the detriment of prospective students. Labor and finances are among the most contentious topics in the university.  I am reminded of what has become a poignant memory from when I was applying to undergraduate programs in high school. A teacher asked my class why people go to college, and across the board we replied that it was in order to get a good, high paying job after with our degrees. The teacher said no, you go to college to learn and expand your knowledge and horizons, which confused my class, as that was not the message we had gotten from our parents and previous teachers. In hindsight, this lesson was more correct than I had anticipated, especially if not exceptionally within academia, where expanded knowledge and horizons often are not correlated with financial stability or job security. Institutions of higher education have a duty as an employer to properly financially compensate their workers as much as they have a duty to educate their students. 

And while it is clear that processing these applications requires work, and those who do that work require compensation — compensation paid for, in part, by those application fees, I’m particularly concerned by the suggestion that fees weed out ‘non-serious’ applications. Such a claim implies that ‘being serious’ about higher education is strongly linked to student finances. Shouldn’t acceptance to an academic institution be based upon merit, not on the money spent on the application? What is a “non-serious” application in the eyes of admissions officers, and in the current systems in place for reviewing applications are there not other flags for what may be perceived as a “non-serious” application? 

My suggestion to repair the application fee is to make it refundable for students who are not accepted to the university, but not refunded for accepted applications. I think this is a good compromise that will allow students to potentially get back “wasted” money from a rejected application, but maintain some revenue for the university. Applicants are not then required to attend after their application is accepted, but they won’t get their money back. My proposed solution may not address the issue of “non-serious” applications, but I cannot imagine that this is such a large issue that we need such financial barriers to prevent it, though I was not able to find data to support this. While getting $50 back for a rejected application would not mean much to one student and their family, it could be a very much needed financial break for another, especially when that money can be used for other fees associated with an accepted application and matriculation.

Graphic created by author

1. Wood, Sarah. 2022. “Colleges With The Highest Application Fees | The Short List: Colleges | US News.”, January 28, 2022.

2. Kane, Emma. n.d. “Why Do Colleges Have Application Fees?” Edmit.

3. “SAT Fee Waivers – SAT Suite | College Board.” n.d. SAT Suite of Assessments.

4. Foulkes, Julia. 2021. “Reckoning with The New School’s Legacies.” Public Seminar.