TEEN
01/29/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Real Cost Of Getting In

Pamela Moore via Getty Images

This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By Valerie Asimacopoulos, Maine South and Joe Hendrix, Daniel Hale Williams

Just mentioning college can evoke a wide range of emotions—excitement, fear, anxiety and giddiness. Regardless of how you feel about it, you’ve probably thought about the cost of attending your top-choice university. But current data shows that many students are asking another important question about college costs: Can I even afford to apply to all of my favorite schools?

While many seniors focus on the cost of college itself, some were blindsided last fall by the rising cost of applications.

Maine South senior Jake Ritthamel had trouble choosing just a handful of universities to apply to a few months ago.

“The fact that applications are so expensive discouraged me from applying to a majority of the schools I wanted to attend,” he said, adding that funds from his after-school job went toward applications. “Each school is looking for something different, and you never really know what that is until you apply.”

Applying to seven or more colleges once seemed extreme, but by today’s standards, it’s the norm. In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2011, the number had bounced to 29 percent.

As application costs rise every year, the idea that a student might not apply to their top-choice universities because of cost is more prevalent.

“On average, students pay between $25-$45 per application, not including (the) $12 fee they have to pay for the ACT scores to each college that they apply,” said Betsy Salomon-Auguste, a college counselor at Daniel Hale Williams.

One high-priced application plus one electronic transcript plus one ACT fee can easily add up to $100. Multiply that a few times over and seniors are faced with hefty costs. According to 2014 U.S. News data, nearly 40 schools charge applicants $75 or more to apply. Stanford’s application rings up at $90, while Boston University and Villanova University each charge $80. The average application fee for all 1,073 schools in the study was $41.

With more selective universities, students often feel pressure to apply to additional schools for backup options. Some believe that applying to a laundry list of competitive schools raises their chances for getting into at least one—but that logic could be mistaken.

There’s no scientific formula that calculates the perfect number of applications per student, but most college counselors agree that seniors are better off tackling a feasible list of schools that fit their academic criteria.

Maine South senior Julia Samulak narrowed down her college wish list to 12 schools.

“The schools I applied to are very competitive and have frighteningly low acceptance rates,” she said. “So by applying to more, I hope that I am increasing my chances of getting into at least one.”

Of course, there’s also the logic that applying to more schools will give students a chance to pick the best offer or financial aid package, which could save them more bank in the long run.

“By applying to so many schools, I will have more options and hopefully will be able to pick schools that offer me the most money,” Samulak added.

Other students have the opposite problem. The sticker shock of applications discourages them from even applying to schools they’d want to attend.

“Research shows that most students tend to submit too few college applications and don’t apply to enough colleges that match their academic potential,” said Katherine Levin, associate director of external communications at The College Board.

Many Chicago students depend on fee waivers, which are distributed fall of senior year. Typically, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch at Chicago Public Schools are eligible to receive application fee waivers from their school counselor.

The College Board recently announced that every student who takes the SAT with a fee waiver will also receive four college application waivers.

“Fee waivers are very essential,” said Salomon-Auguste. “Students are required to pay for many fees during their senior year. It almost seems as though (students) are being penalized for wanting to better their future.”

Lane Tech senior Kayla Martinez said that if she hadn’t been eligible for fee waivers, she would’ve applied to fewer schools due to the high cost.

“Some (teens) work but get paid minimum wage. It would take about five paychecks to pay for at least two college apps,” Martinez said. “For those who don’t work, their parents have to pay, when the parents already have a lot of other costs to worry about. Not everyone has that kind of money lying around.”

Of course, there are many schools that don’t charge a dime for the application itself—especially U.S. military schools and small liberal arts colleges like Carleton, Colby and Reed. But sometimes the additional fees for sending transcripts and test scores are what push students to the edge of their budgets.

Then, consider the in-between group: the students who don’t qualify for fee waivers due to family income, but can’t quite manage the cost on their own dime. Whitney Young senior Justin Torres found himself in that position this fall.

“My family makes too much money—even though it’s not an overabundance—for me to be eligible for the fee waiver, and that has caused me to lower the amount of safety schools I applied for,” he said.

So, what’s the solution?

“All universities should be aware that costs like $80 an application are a little insane considering the acceptance rate of the top-tier colleges,” Torres said.

Other students feel taken advantage of—especially with tuition looming in the near future.

“Colleges make so much money on tuition itself,” Martinez pointed out. “With applications, students don’t even know if they’ll be accepted yet, but colleges are already making money off of them. An education shouldn’t be a business.”

With no sign of an application clearance sale anytime soon, there could be a more logical way to look at the process. Levin, from The College Board, recommends students apply to at least four colleges: one safety, two “good fits” and one “reach.” She said this formula seems to offer most students good results.

“Applying to a range of colleges provides students with options when the time comes to enroll—options for finding a college that is a good fit academically, financially and socially,” she explained.

Those Ivy League schools may be harder and harder to get into—but they’re also becoming more and more expensive to even consider. And although fee waivers are available to some, family income can restrict others’ access to much-needed aid. When all is said and done, a shot at higher education can make some students forget about the hundreds they dropped on college applications.

“I think the cost of college apps was beneficial in that despite how expensive they are, I was still fortunate enough to be able to apply where I wanted to go,” Martinez said. “Only time will tell whether or not one of those schools becomes the place I spend my next four years of education.”

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