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Application Fees

Why do we charge them?

December 3, 2019

Why do many community colleges continue to charge application fees for prospective students?

Yes, the colleges need the money. But application fees are a drop in the bucket, in terms of the overall budget, and I suspect that any money made from fees is more than lost in the form of applications deterred. Admittedly, this is a testable hypothesis, though I lack the resources to run the experiment myself. If anyone has seen some good (attempted or actual) evidence one way or the other, please share it in the comments.

When I’ve asked locally, I usually get some variation on “because we need the money.” Well, yes, but picking up just a few more matriculated students would more than make up for the money.

Conceivably, fees could deter frivolous applications. Processing applications requires staff time and effort, and those aren’t free. And if a college suddenly experienced a flood of “just in case” applications that turn out to be hollow, its enrollment projections (and section schedule) could be thrown out of whack. That seems to be happening at the selective universities as the Common App has gained ground; students apply to more places but initially enroll only at one, so the yield from any given number of applications gets a little lower every year. But I’m not convinced that the analogy would hold here. From a student’s perspective -- and I went through this last year with The Boy -- a middle-class student applying to selective places has two compelling reasons to cast a wide net. The first, obviously, is uncertainty about getting in. The second is to be able to compare financial aid offers.

Here, though, getting in is a certainty; that’s the whole point of open admissions. And community colleges are known for low cost, especially compared to four-year schools. Yes, some students get spectacular deals at four-year schools, but most don’t. For most prospective students, the “hedging your bets” rationale doesn’t work the same way here. (I’ve never heard of a student applying to two community colleges at the same time, let alone five or six. It may have happened, but it’s certainly not common.) The way that bet hedging might be relevant would be if a student used a community college as a safety school. That absolutely does happen, but those students aren’t typically deterred by application fees anyway.

Application fees may show up in the college budget like any other money, but from a prospective student’s point of view, they’re different. Tuition, general fees, lab fees and even books (where OER haven’t caught on yet) can be covered by financial aid. The sums of money involved are high enough that most people’s mental accounting puts them in the “long-term” category. For a student who’s just scraping by, a $5,000 tuition bill registers as fantastical, but a $25 application fee is real money. That $25 could be meal money for the week. Yes, there are fee waivers, but you have to know to ask, and the first message they communicate to the student is “prove you’re poor.” That’s not a great first impression.

In the absence of an application fee at all, though, there’s no need for waivers. A free application is just a free application; getting it for free doesn’t say anything about you. That’s why the for-profits never charged application fees, even as they charged much higher tuition than many other places. They understood that mental accounting matters. (Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed is excellent on this point.) By getting that first concrete barrier out of the way, they were able to get the student in the door. We could, too, but with the crucial difference that we’re charging less than the cost of production for the education.

Eliminating the fees would also resolve some nagging dilemmas that we see consistently at the campus level. For instance, if a student is enrolled full-time at Private U during the academic year but came here last year to take a summer class or two, do they need to reapply the following summer? What if they skip a summer and then want to return? Tracking the age of fees paid, and coming up with answers to the various permutations that actually happen, requires staff time and effort. Eliminating fees altogether would eliminate those questions altogether.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a good argument for application fees that I’m missing? Alternately, has anyone seen good evidence of what happens when a college eliminates application fees?

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Matt Reed

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