There are quite a few things that might make the average high school senior think twice before applying to Reed College.
There's the lack of intercollegiate football and Greek organizations that many students tend to associate with college. There's the reputation as a rigorous intellectual environment. There's the refusal to participate in popular rankings like those of U.S. News and World Report. There's the "Why Reed?" application essay, which has a history of eliciting eccentric responses.
On top of all that, the college's sticker price is $55,920 for the upcoming academic year. The cost of attendance regularly puts Reed near the top of rankings of the country’s most expensive institutions.
But it’s the $50 application fee that college officials think might be the real barrier to enrolling low-income students.
On Wednesday, Reed officials announced that the college was eliminating the fee -- making it an outlier among selective institutions, the overwhelming majority of which require some kind of application fee, though many waive it for low-income students. Administrators hope the change will spur more applications from prospective students, particularly the low-income and first-generation students who could benefit from the college’s large financial aid budget.
“We have great financial aid, and we’re sort of worried that people will never figure that out,” said John R. Kroger, Reed’s president. “We have a reputation as being an expensive private college, but half our students are on financial aid, and our students graduate with lower debt burdens … than the University of Oregon or Portland State. We just don’t think people know that. Our main goal is to get people to apply and apply for financial aid, and they’ll realize we’re more affordable than they think.”
The move is particularly noteworthy in the wake of last year's highly publicized report  by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Christopher Avery of Harvard University, who found that the majority of high-achieving low-income students never apply to selective colleges -- despite the fact that many selective institutions provide high amounts of financial aid, which can make them more affordable than less-selective institutions. Selective institutions also tend to have higher graduation rates and more resources to provide academic and student support services.
That report generated criticism of wealthy, highly selective institutions, which pundits say are not doing enough to recruit low-income students.
Kroger said he does not know whether the move will generate significantly more applications, since it hasn’t been tried at many other institutions. But if Reed sees a boost in applications from qualified low-income students, the move could inspire other colleges to make similar changes.
Before Wednesday’s announcement, Reed, like most colleges that charge application fees, allowed low-income students to waive the fee. But recent research suggests that the paperwork burden associated with waivers and a lack of knowledge that such waivers exist might prevent low-income students from ever applying.
In a study  of what makes high-achieving, low-income students more likely to apply to selective colleges, Hoxby and Sarah Turner, an economist at the University of Virginia, provided students with vouchers they could use to waive application fees, even though many of the students would have qualified for fee waivers anyway. The researchers found that the waivers – when coupled with other information about the application process and aid offered by selective institutions – had a large effect on the number of applications the students submitted.
Kroger said that when he applied for college he didn’t have much money, so he put a cap on the number of applications he submitted. He believes many low-income students do that now.
Reed is not the first college to try to streamline the application process to grow its applicant pool. Tools like the Common Application and so-called “fast track” applications -- which don't require essays, promise quick consideration and often come with the student’s information already filled out -- have proven successful at growing college application numbers.
In the past few years, Reed has seen its application pool fluctuate from 3,054 applications in 2006, to a peak of 3,485 in 2008, back down to 3,131 in 2012. Its yield rate has stayed at about 30 percent.
More applications could make the college more selective, a prominent consideration in many popular rankings. Kroger said improving the college’s standing in rankings is not a motivating factor for the fee change, noting that the college is avoiding other changes that have a more proven track record of increasing the number of applications. The college has some creditability in saying that it's not letting rankings dictate its decisions. Since 1995, the college has refused to participate  in the U.S. News rankings, thereby accepting a lower ranking than it might otherwise receive.
“There are a lot of things that Reed is not willing to do to get more applicants. We’re not willing to water down the curriculum. We’re not willing to change some of the application barriers,” Kroger said, pointing to a supplemental essay the college requires in addition to the Common Application. “I’m sure we would get more if we eliminated it.”
Kroger’s hope is that by eliminating the fee, the college can bring in a more diverse pool of applicants. “If a student is eligible for $150,000 in financial aid, it’s madness for them not to apply,” Kroger said. “It’s silly when we’re talking about an education valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars that getting $50 from someone at the beginning of the process is what we should be thinking about.”
Kroger called improving access to college education the number-one issue facing higher education. Reed has focused extensively on making college more affordable for low-income student in recent years. In its latest capital campaign, the college raised $203 million, $74 million of which went to need-based aid. Kroger said the college can afford to grow the percentage of low-income students in its student body.
The application fee currently brings in about $100,000 a year, a spokesman for the college said, and about a third of applicants have their fees waived. The money to make up for the loss of application fees will come primarily from the college’s recent fund-raising campaign.
In a recent report  by the New America Foundation, Reed was praised for enrolling a relatively large percentage of low-income students while keeping down the price for those students. According to the report, for the 2011 academic year, 20 percent of the college’s undergraduate enrollment qualified for federal Pell Grants. For students whose family incomes were less than $30,000, the college’s average net price – tuition after aid was factored in – was $8,918.
That was less than the average net price for the same group at both the University of Oregon ($9,930) and Oregon State University ($12,633).
According to the College Board’s annual survey of colleges in 2012, 88 percent of institutions had application fees, with selective institutions (a group that includes Reed) more likely to have a fee. The average fee was about $42. About 87 percent of colleges charging a fee included a fee waiver for low-income students.
In addition to eliminating the application fee, Reed also ended the requirement that students submit a graded high school essay. Kroger said the requirement was a burden for applicants and the admissions office. Since most of their college applications were completed online, students were often unsure how to get the printed, graded paper to admissions officials, Kroger said. Meanwhile, the high school essay was only used in about 3 percent of admissions decisions.
Over the next year, Kroger said, the college will consider a range of additional changes to its application process that could remove barriers to applicants, particularly those with low incomes.