It is no secret that the pursuit of higher education does not come cheap. Unfortunately, these expenses start well before college-bound students set foot on the hallowed halls of their preferred institutions. As such, this may bring one to ask “how much do college applications cost?”
During the 2019-2020 admissions cycle, a total of 5.6 million college applications were submitted by students across the nation (NACAC, 2021). However, college enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 academic year decreased by 4.2% from the previous year, while freshmen enrollment numbers saw a 13% drop (Leukhina and Werner, 2021). One factor that contributed to this is the high costs associated with a college education—a problem that has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article provides a breakdown of the expenses incurred in applying for college. To give you an idea of how much a college application would cost, the different testing fees and auxiliary fees are discussed. Also provided are ways to save on college applications.
The average college application fee in the U.S. is $50, with elite schools charging higher rates. So, it is not surprising that college-bound students often ask why are college applications fees so expensive.
The admissions process, which includes screening, verifying, and evaluating applications requires a lot of staff resources and entails a significant number of work hours. The application fee collected from students is used to fund this rigorous admission process. It also includes the technology cost for running the application portal, admission review cost, maintenance, and improvements in the online technology that handles the online application. The rest of the revenue goes to financing applicants from low-income families that apply for waivers.
The application fee for the undergraduate is typically different from the graduate application fee. Transferees and international students are also charged a different rate. The following table provides a snapshot of fees charged by highly selective schools.
|New York University||$80|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||$75|
|University of Texas Austin||$75|
|University of Chicago||$75|
|University of California Davis||$70|
|Pennsylvania State University||$65|
|University of South Florida||$30|
|University of Florida||$30|
|Florida State University||$30|
In applying for college, there are other requirements aside from paying the application fee. Most colleges also require the submission of Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), American College Testing (ACT), or Advanced Placement (AP) scores.
The SAT score reflects the student’s ability to learn at the postsecondary level. Most colleges do not require the SAT, but merit scholarships and other college financing require SAT scores. The cost for registering for SAT or ACT could end up higher than the cost of your college application because most students take these exams more than once to increase scores.
In some states, fees are waived for these exams when taken for the first time. For succeeding attempts, however, the exam is no longer free. So if you want to take the SAT or ACT again to get higher scores, you have to consider these additional fees in your college application cost. In 2020, due to the circumstances brought about by the pandemic, colleges made the SAT and ACT optional for students. For the 2021 round of admissions, however, most colleges resumed requiring these tests.
Aside from the testing fees, the SAT also has corresponding charges for auxiliary services such as phone registration, late registration, test center change, and inclusion to the waitlist. There are also SAT preparation classes and SAT tutors available for a fee.
|SAT with essay||$68|
|SAT subject test registration||$26|
|SAT subject test||$22 per test|
|SAT language with listening||$26|
|SAT international student testing fee||$43 - $53 depending on region|
|SAT score fee||$12 per report|
|SAT score rush order||$31|
|SAT score manual verification||$55|
Meanwhile, the ACT is a standardized test used for college admissions in the U.S. The ACT Free Waiver Program covers up to four ACTs, with or without the optional writing test. Students that register with the fee waiver are also provided learning resources, additional score reports, and waived college application fees.
|Full ACT with writing||$85|
|Test option change||$25|
|Additional score reports||$16|
Lastly, the AP exam is another cost that you have to consider in preparing for college. Unlike the SAT and the ACT, the AP exam also offers courses that can earn you credit in college. Compared to the SAT and ACT, the AP exam is more expensive. Most schools do not require the AP exam, but passing the AP exam demonstrates mastery of rigorous college-level material. Although the College Board recommends taking the AP course prior to taking the exam, you may take the exam without taking an AP course.
|Exam (except AP Seminar and AP Research) taken at US territories||$96|
|Exam (except AP Seminar and AP Research) taken outside the US||$126|
|AP Seminar or AP Research Exam||$144|
|Late order fee||$40|
|Unused/canceled exam fee||$40|
Aside from the testing fees, other additional costs include securing copies of your high school transcript and taking college essay tutorials. Online, there are sites from which you can request a copy of your high school transcript, such as Parchment and NeedMyTranscript. However, if your school is not included in the database of these third-party sites, you may check the website of the high school you attended and request a copy of your transcript online.
Another way to secure your high school transcript is by coordinating with the Department of Education office in your state. Your school district, which is searchable on the National Center for Education Statistics website, also keeps a record of your transcript.
In addition to submitting transcripts, some students who desire to excel in college application testing take college essay tutorials, which makes it another cost to consider in the overall college application budget. The cost of these tutorials ranges from $50 to $100. Check with your guidance office as some schools offer group tutorials.
The college admissions process involves the submission of an application and paying the corresponding application fee. In the U.S., colleges charge different rates for application. The application fee covers the cost of reviewing, verifying, and evaluating the applications. So why not charge a uniform amount, one might ask. Because reviewing applications requires time and resources, some institutions intentionally charge a higher fee to ensure that only serious applicants will send their applications.
On average, at most four-year, not-for-profit institutions, the college application fee is about $50. Among 62 four-year institutions with the highest application fees, the average is $77. A student’s total application costs can quickly add up because hardly anyone just submits one application. Since 2014, almost 36% of first-time college applicants sent applications to seven or more colleges (Clinedinst, 2019).
Currently, the top five colleges in the U.S. that charge higher than average application fees are the University of California – San Diego in California, Arkansas Baptist College in Arkansas, Stanford University in California, Columbia University in New York, and Duke University in North Carolina.
|School Name||State||Application Fee|
|University of California—San Diego||CA||$105|
|Arkansas Baptist College||AR||$100|
|North Carolina State University||NC||$85|
|Syracuse University (NY)||NY||$85|
|University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill||NC||$85|
|University of Southern California||CA||$85|
On the other end of the spectrum are colleges that charge less than $35 per application, which include Huntington University in Indiana, Northwest University in Washington, Alabama State University in Alabama, and Pine Manor College in Massachusetts.
|School Name||State||Application Fee|
|Louisiana State University||LA||20|
|East Central University||OK||20|
|Alabama State University||AL||25|
|Georgia Southwestern State University||GA||25|
|California University of Pennsylvania||PA||25|
|University of Bridgeport||CT||25|
|Pine Manor College||MA||25|
|Colorado State University-Pueblo||CO||25|
|California Lutheran University||CA||25|
|Chicago State University||IL||25|
With this data in mind, one can conclude that many of the most well-known schools across the country charge more for admissions than other institutions. This can make it difficult for budget-conscious students and deter them from applying to their target schools.
An interesting observation on college applications by Black et al. (2020) was published in Education Finance and Policy. Titled “Apply Yourself: Racial and Ethnic Differences in College Application,” the study found that “A more nuanced type of inequality in the college application behavior of Black high school graduates, an issue not previously identified in studies that aggregate Black and Hispanic students as a single group. On average, Black students are actually more likely to apply to college than White and Hispanic students with similar levels of college readiness and high school quality. However, this is driven mostly by high application rates among less-prepared Black students. Among the most qualified students, Black students have similar overall application rates to white students but are more likely to apply to flagship universities.”
Luckily, regardless of your level of college readiness, there are ways to save on college application costs.
Most people would say that the cost of a college application is just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of tuition and other college fees, but why pay outright the full amount when there are ways to trim the cost? Below are some ways that you can consider.
Not all colleges charge an application fee. While the most well-known and selective universities are known to charge higher than average application fees, there are high-ranking schools that process applications without charging a fee. Most online colleges, liberal arts schools, and Christian schools typically do not charge an application fee.
More colleges are embracing fee-free applications as research through the years has shown that some students, specifically those from low-income families, are often discouraged in applying to more competitive colleges due to application fees.
Most schools waive the application fee for students that need financial assistance. You may request your high school guidance counselor to assist you in accomplishing the college application fee waiver from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC’s Request for Admission Application Fee Waiver Form is a waiver that is accepted by most colleges. Aside from coordinating with your school guidance office, there are a variety of ways to get an application fee waiver.
Through Common Application
Also known as the Common App, this application process app provides college application fee waivers. The Common App enables students to file a single application to all prospective schools, and at the same time provides the Common App fee waiver for each particular school that you are applying for. Note that the Common App does not include all schools so check their website first if the school you are eyeing is part of the consortium. Similar requirements apply—demonstrated student need for financial assistance—for the waiver to be approved.
Through Coalition Application
The Coalition App is similar to the Common App but has fewer member colleges. This app also streamlines the college application process and issues application fee waivers to qualified students.
Through SAT and SAT Subject Tests
You will automatically get unlimited college application fee waivers from the College Board if you took the SAT or one or more SAT subject tests with a fee waiver. You may use these waivers in applying to schools that accept application fee waivers. You may access these waivers in your College Board account anytime you need to print one for application. You may search in the College Board website for colleges that accept application fee waivers.
During the Fall 2020 freshmen application, most schools eliminated the SAT and ACT testing requirements (Jeschik, 2021). The test-optional admission policies launched by schools in 2020 to accommodate more applicants during the pandemic eliminated the cost of testing. While some schools have resumed SAT and ACT testing in 2021, many institutions are considering making test-optional admission policies permanent. For this reason, always check the testing requirements of each college that you have on your shortlist.
Some colleges charge significantly lower application fees to students who complete their applications online because it reduces the school’s administrative costs. It is a form of incentive for the student, and also offers significant savings on overall application costs.
To cut on costs, carefully research the schools that you have on your shortlist. You need to have a list of schools that you are seriously interested in attending. Identify your likely, target, and reach schools.
Given these criteria, aim for target schools but you may also send applications to reach and likely schools. The point of creating a balanced college list is, you only need to apply to schools that are likely to accept you, and that you will strongly consider attending. Applying to multiple schools may be considered a smart move, but it pays to have a plan with a clear objective.
Source: ACT Research
Aside from tuition and other college fees, students also have to allot money for college applications. As discussed in this article, due diligence is important in the college application process, the more you know, the more informed your decisions will be. Computing the overall cost of college application entails determining the application fee for each college, the testing fees if SAT or ACT is required, and other auxiliary fees.
Rather than merely asking how much do college applications cost, think of the long-term value that you can get from investing time and money in a school that fits your plans and interests. Always strive to make informed decisions to get the return that would be worth your investment.