Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Against Application Fees

Why do most colleges charge application fees?

I’m not referring here to the selective places that operate in a different world.  Presumably, they have to pay people to comb through applications and try to sort out the actual coxswains from the ersatz ones.  (Apparently that’s harder than it seems.) I’m referring to community colleges and open- or nearly-open-admissions state colleges, where the applications are straightforward enough to lend themselves to instant decisions.

I’m at a loss to explain why we do that.

Yes, there’s the obvious answer of “we need the money.”  But the amount of money raised is relatively trivial compared to what comes from tuition and course or lab fees.  And I’m guessing that the applications deterred by a fee would more than make up the difference. (Quick Q for readers -- has anyone studied this formally?)  

Worse, application fees tend to be flat, regardless of the number of credits taken.  For someone who just wants to take a single class, either as a self-contained goal or to test the waters, that seems regressive.  Application fees aren’t typically covered by financial aid (unless they’re applied later to tuition, like a deposit), and qualifying for a fee waiver involves jumping through hoops that can be intimidating to many of the folks for whom fee waivers were intended.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” makes the point that for students on the edge of economic disaster, thousands of dollars in tuition and loans can seem like Monopoly money, but a $25 cash-on-the-barrel application fee represents a week’s meals.  That’s why most for-profits never charged application fees. But we do.

A few years ago, at Holyoke, the admissions office asked to be allowed to assess an application fee for applicants from outside the United States; they said that there was a huge group of students in China who blanketed the US with college applications wherever it was free, with no intention of actually attending, and that a modest fee would deter frivolous applications.  I don’t know if they were correct, but it sounded plausible; to the extent that’s a thing, I wouldn’t object to a modest fee for international applications. But for folks here, I don’t see the argument.

Community colleges are often ‘backup’ options for students who expect or hope for a better financial package at a four-year school than the one they receive.  Inevitably, some of them go trundling off to four-year schools, leaving us behind. That’s frustrating, but I don’t see it as worth excluding people to avoid.

Cynically, the presence of application fees allows for waivers of application fees for special programs.  But if we accept the top 100 percent of our applicants, why discriminate? Why not give everyone the same chance?

Admittedly, application fees are a much smaller issue than, say, allowing late registration.  But that also makes them easier to change.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a good argument for application fees at community colleges that I’m missing?  Or should we just recognize them as cases of unconscious imitation and consign them to the dustbin of history?