How to Apply to Schools for Free and Save Hundreds of Dollars
The cost of a college education gets a lot of attention these days, and for good reason: Simply applying to college can be an expensive undertaking. There’s the cost of standardized tests, the application fee and travel costs for campus visits. Before you know it, you may have to spend $100 or more for each school you apply to. One way to reduce this financial burden is to obtain an application fee waiver.
What is a Fee Waiver?
Most college applications require a fee. The exact amount depends on the school, but the fees commonly hover around $60. The purpose of the application fee is to help the college or university you are applying to pay for the cost of reviewing your application and making an admissions decision.
The Cost of Applying to College
According to US News & World Report, the average college application fee in 2016 was $43, while $50 was the most common application fee amount. The most expensive schools have fees around $80 to $90, including Stanford University, Duke University and Columbia University.
There are colleges that charge no application fee, such as Averett University, Kenyon College and Carleton College. Of the colleges that do charge a small application fee, such as Wofford College, you can expect to pay around $35.
The number of colleges students apply to depends on a variety of factors, such as financial ability and type of decision status a student is applying to. For instance, if you apply during the early decision process and get accepted, you may only apply to one school. But those who strive to get into their preferred schools but want a backup should apply to at least three schools. One school will be their “safety” school, one school will be their “probable” school and one will be their “reach” school. For students who obtain a fee waiver or can afford to apply to more schools, applying to six or 10 schools isn’t uncommon. A student who applies to 10 schools (two safety schools, two probable schools and six reach schools) can easily spend over $500 on application fees, assuming no fee waivers were used.
Other Costs of Applying to College
At a minimum, students will need to spend around $50 for the SAT or ACT and another $12 to have their standardized test score sent to the college they are applying to. If the student intends to mail in a paper application, there will also be postage fees.
Students who want to go “all out” can expect to pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in test preparation, then there’s the cost of an on-campus visit; depending upon how far you live from the school, this might be the cost of driving across town or the cost of a round-trip plane ticket and hotel room.
Which Students Qualify for Fee Waivers?
Fee waivers are generally given to students who demonstrate financial need. However, some schools will allow any student to avoid paying the application fee if they meet certain requirements, such as making an official on-campus visit.
For students who request a fee waiver based on financial need, the exact requirements to qualify will depend on the waiver process the student is using. For example, some schools have their own fee waiver application process. However, students can expect a fee waiver if they receive government assistance based on their participation in programs for low-income families.
How to Get a Fee Waiver
There are several methods by which students can obtain college application fee waivers. Many of these will require students to complete a separate application process for each waiver.
- 1. The College Board’s SAT fee waiver
Students eligible for the College Board’s SAT testing fee waiver will automatically be eligible for four college application fee waivers. Students are eligible for SAT testing fee waivers if they are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, have a family income that falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines, are enrolled in a government program for low-income students, are a member of family that receives public assistance, are living in federally subsidized public housing or living in a foster home, or are homeless, a ward of the state, or an orphan.
- 2. Apply online
Many colleges will waive the application fee if you apply online. Examples include:
– College of Southern Idaho
– Wesleyan College
– University of Hartford
– Manchester University
– Washington and Jefferson College
If students prefer not to apply online, they can mail in a paper application, although the regular application fee will apply.
- 3. Request one directly from the school based on financial need
Most schools with application fees will allow students to apply for an application fee waiver. The process will differ for each school, but often includes completing a separate form outlining the student’s financial situation.
- 4. Legacy applicants
A few schools will grant a fee waiver for students who have parents or grandparents that attended and graduated from a particular school. One such school with this policy is Western New England University.
- 5. Visit the school
Many schools, such as the University of Pittsburgh, will provide an application fee waiver if you visit the school. The granting of this waiver does not require showing financial need. The exact process will depend on the school. For instance, the University of Pittsburgh application fee waiver requires a campus visit between June15 and August 31. Other schools do not advertise this type of fee waiver, so you may have to contact the admissions office directly and ask for details.
- 6. The ACT
If you are eligible for the ACT test fee waiver, you may also be eligible for the Request for Waiver or Deferral of College Admission Application Fee. The requirements for the ACT test fee waiver are very similar to the SAT test fee waiver.
- 7. Simply ask for one
If you are a prized candidate with great test scores and a stellar high school GPA, ask for a fee waiver and you just might receive. This strategy will usually work best when you have numbers well above the average for accepted students.
- 8. Apply as an international student
If you’re applying as an international student, some schools will waive the application fee. Ithaca College is an example of a college with this benefit.
- 9. National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) fee waiver
The NACAC allows students to apply to up to four colleges without having to pay the application fee. A student will be eligible for a NACAC college application fee waiver if they meet the requirements for an SAT or ACT testing fee waiver. While most colleges and universities will accept a NACAC college application fee waiver, not all of them will.
- 10. Realize Your College Potential program
High school students in the top 10-15% of their class but bottom third in family income may be eligible to participate in the Realize Your College Potential program, sponsored by the College Board. Eligible students will receive special packets with information about choosing, applying and attending college, as well as application fee waivers.
- 11. Special invitation
Students who express interest in a school, such as by providing contact information at a college recruitment fair or considering playing a sport at the school, may receive a special invitation to apply for free. In other instances, the invitation to apply with a waived application fee can be unsolicited.
- 12. Avoid the application fee
One way to reduce the costs of applying is to choose schools that don’t have an application fee. Some of these schools include:
– Grinnell College
– Centre College
– United States Naval Academy
– Oberlin College & Conservatory
An Expert Discusses Fee Waivers
Dr. Michele Scott Taylor
Dr. Michele Scott Taylor is the Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland, the nation’s oldest college access organization. She is an expert in college access and higher education policy and programming.
Some students fall into the unfortunate position of having too much family income to qualify for a waiver, but still being unable to afford it. What's the best way to ask the admissions office for an exception?
Students should write a special circumstances letter to the admissions representative at the school who is assigned to them. In the letter, the student should explain their personal situation and the difference between how things look on paper versus how they actually are in real life. Better yet, if the school is local, the student should go for an in-person interview with their admissions representative to make his or her case. It doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, but the majority of the time, talking to someone works. And if the student is a strong applicant, a school usually does try to come through.
If the school itself doesn't offer a fee waiver, what can a student do to get help from other sources?
If a school doesn’t offer a fee waiver, a student or family should reach out to the local college access organization (like College Now). There are many college access organizations across the country that work to guide students and families through the college application and financial aid process. Here is a list of college access organizations that are members of the National College Access Network (NCAN): NCAN Membership List.
Another resource is The College Board, which offers up to four free college application waivers to students who are income-eligible to receive an SAT fee waiver.