Getting A College Application Fee Waiver

High-school seniors experience one of their first encounters with the “fee economy” during the college application procession. Frequently, the costs of applying to certain schools can require expenditures of $60-$110 each that can leave applicants with a $1,000+ bill as the cost of getting their applications in front of admissions committees across the country. That is unnecessarily high, and with a little bit of preparation and initiative, the average high-school student can drastically lower the costs of applying to school (even if they come from a middle-class or upper-class household.)

An underutilized technique for minimizing the costs of applying to college is making requests to the school to waive their fee. Not all say yes, but the recent decline in the overall applicant pool (which peaked in 2012) has left many colleges looking for ways to increase the number of applicants that apply to their school because it can improve their metrics in the U.S. News & World Report Rankings. Most college rankings consider the percentage of admitted students as a factor in their rankings, and therefore, there is a general willingness from admissions committees to take action to bolster the applicant (plus, there is a general political spirit in motion that weighs in favor of setting aside obstacles to attending college.)

The mistake that students make in asking for fee waivers is that they often overstate their financial difficulties when making the request. Admissions committees know this is a lie because there are abundant programs in existence that automatically grant waivers on the costs of applying if your household income is below a certain amount.If you were automatically eligible, you wouldn’t need to write in and make the request for the waiver.

A more honest approach would be saying something like this: “Dear (Insert College), I am interested in applying to (Insert Name of College). I’m trying to keep costs down as I find the right school for me. Would it be possible to receive a fee waiver? – (Insert Your Name)”

If you send that e-mail to ten schools, you will receive fee waiver codes to 5-6 of them and polite no from the rest. If you apply to ten schools, this could have the effect of saving you $400-$600 in exchange for an hour’s worth of e-mailing. It’s the best hourly rate you’ll ever earn on your time. And high-school students tend to ignore the easy opportunity to lower their application costs (by securing fee waivers) because they are generally unaware of how easy they can be to secure.

And if you performed well on the standardized tests, you should include that information in your e-mail request as well (normally, any ACT score over 30 or any SAT score over 1350 falls within the definition of “good” for the purpose of receiving special accommodations from a college admissions committee). Because U.S. News Rankings also take into account the standardized test scores of applicants, the admissions committee would be more likely to grant a fee waiver from a high-scoring applicant.

Back in the day, President Teddy Roosevelt used to lament that the final settling of all American lands, which brought about the end to frontier theory, would make Americans complacent and just accept the equivalent of “default” terms. This impulse manifests itself in many different instances, particularly in the development of Americans’ refusal to barter or engage in negotiations–instead, we have a tendency to roll with the default terms.

But there is an upside to this development. Because so many Americans have developed shyness in attempting to modify the default terms, the costs imposed for modifying terms are negligible.

How many times have you heard some variation of the following phrase: “If we made an exception for you, we’d have to make an exception for everybody that asks.” That isn’t an issue anymore because hardly anyone asks. The institution could make an exception for everyone that asks, and the carrying costs would be minimal. My guess is that, over the course of a full cycle, a typical college will only receive a few dozen e-mail requests asking that the application costs be waived.

If I were an applicant for college today, I would approach the fee question in one of three ways:

First, I would pay special attention to the colleges and universities that charge no application fee to apply. This includes universities such as: University of Chicago, Carleton College, Colby College, Grinnell College, Reed College, Smith College, Wellesley College, Tulane University, Kenyon College, Case Western Reserve University, Oberlin College, Trinity University-Texas, St. Olaf, Sewanee-The University of the South, Butler University, Marquette University, and the University of Dayton. Essentially, you can purchase yourself a free lottery ticket to a scholarship or financial aid opportunity by applying to any of those listed universities at no cost. If you’re truly committed in putting together the best life for yourself, you should want to cast as wide of a net as possible.

Second, I would ask my own high school counselor to sign off on a request for an application fee waiver. Note: You can fill out a standard form that says something very banal such as “My name is (insert name), and I am the high school director for college applicants at (school). (Student name) has asked that I inform that he is requesting a fee waiver from your university. Thank you. – (signed).”

There is no lie or false representation as to your economic background. There is no false promise. It is just a signed document acknowledging that you’re requesting a fee waiver. Because people (rightfully) take signed documents seriously, attaching this to your request for a fee waiver can increase your odds of finding success even though it doesn’t add anything substantively different from what you yourself are asking.

And then third, I would try to get my test scores at least above the 30 mark for the ACT and the 1350 mark for the SAT because that is the point at which you begin to signal yourself as a student worthy of special accommodations (from an admission committee standpoint) compared to the generic applicant. If your score exceeds these levels, I suspect that your chances of securing a fee waiver will be somewhere around 80-90% because you now represent clear value to the institution in having someone with your credentials show formal interest in the school.

And finally, I would execute on these steps. It is not inconceivable that you could apply to a dozen or two schools without paying much by way of application fees if you follow this process. Most people are too lazy to challenge the default terms of any transaction, and therein lies the opportunity for the enterprising high-school senior to act. The bar has been set low, and showing just a little bit of initiative can be rewarded more than ever before.

The worst-case scenario is that a college admissions staffer will politely tell you no, in which case you are in no worse position than not asking at all (presuming that you yourself are kind and courteous when making the request.) And if you send out this type of e-mail to 5+ institutions, I can almost guarantee that you will receive a few yeses.

The most likely scenario is that you will be well compensated for showing some initiative. Almost every academic institution is at a point right now in which they are trying to solicit applicants–heck, college admissions staffs at some schools receive compensation that is in part tied to the exclusivity of the incoming class, meaning that such a staffer has an incentive to grant your fee waiver request.

In recent years, schools have begun to host conferences and meet-and-greets with high schools in a targeted area with the hope of increasing the size of the applicant pool. Students who attend such conferences often receive fee waivers as a reward for listening to a two-hour speech about the merits of a given college. The cycle is at a point where colleges are bending over backwards to get more students to apply to their school, and it has arguably never been easier to receive a fee waiver.

You should note that the above analysis refers only to the college-initiated fees, and does not cover the College Board costs of sending out your standardized test scores to the institutions that you request. To receive a College Board waiver, you do need to economically qualify, and the above advice about making a general request does not apply to them.

The transactional costs of applying to college can be needlessly high. If you aim to apply to close to ten schools, you are looking at a four figure-bill if you accept all the default fee terms. But there are things you can do, which require minimal time expenditure, that can cut the total cost of applying to a few hundred dollars. Pay attention to the schools that do not charge to apply. Pay attention to local conferences in which schools grant fee waivers if you attend. Receive a document from your high school counselor noting that you’re requesting a fee waiver. And then, just ask. Few students think to ask for a fee waiver when applying to college, and the results of doing so are likely more beneficial to you than you’d initially think.