As the director of college counseling at Canterbury School, Heather Case knows a lot about the college application process, such as how fees can quickly add up – even before students enroll.
On top of application fees, students might have to pay to send their SAT, ACT or even AP test scores to colleges and – if they are pursuing specialized programs requiring portfolios or recorded auditions – might have to pay even more, Case said.
It is, she said, not unusual to spend $200 applying to a school, although that is not the average and there can be a "huge range."
Application and related fees vary – some colleges don’t charge any or offer waivers, Case said.
High school seniors likely are learning the ins and outs of college application fees now because fall is known as the college application season. Trine University in Angola, for example, is busiest with applications between late August and the end of October or early November, said Scott Goplin, vice president of enrollment management.
For some colleges, application fees have become a steadily growing stream of revenue.
Take Penn State University, where the application fee is $50. With 53,472 undergraduate applicants each year, the school reels in hundreds of thousands of dollars in application fee revenue. For students who are financially eligible, their fees are waived.
It’s not alone.
At UCLA, which receives more applications than any college in the country, more than 90,000 undergraduate applications flood the system – although only about 20 percent get admitted and only one-third of those actually enroll. So UCLA generates millions of dollars from its applicants, many of whom pay the $70 fee but do not enroll.
Schools argue that it takes a lot of time and technology to sort through that avalanche of submissions. In fall 2015, about 20 million students attended American colleges and universities, an increase of 4.9 million since 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Students aren’t applying to just two or three schools. More than 80 percent of first-time freshmen applied to at least three colleges in fall 2015, and 36 percent applied to at least seven, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2015 State of College Admission Report. The report indicated that only 17 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges in 2005 and only 9 percent did so in 1990.
At Canterbury, students average eight to 10 applications, Case said. Assuming a $50 to $75 fee for each application, that could mean a nearly $800 expense, she said.
Bishop Luers High School seniors Sophie Gernhardt and Aspen Hill said applying to college hasn’t yet cost them anything. Both said a fee wouldn’t dissuade them from applying to schools they were interested in.
"If I was really thinking I would be accepted, and if I really wanted to go there, I would still apply," Gernhardt said.
In Indiana, Ball State University charges applicants $55 while Purdue University and Indiana University each charge $60, but applying to IU’s Jacobs School of Music costs $140. The colleges do offer waivers for students meeting certain qualifications, such as demonstrating financial hardship or being a 21st Century Scholar, a program that provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition.
Students applying to colleges in and near Fort Wayne will likely encounter lower, if any, application fees.
Goplin has worked in college admissions since 1978 and said he has long advocated for free applications.
When considering public and private institutions, he said concerns about a private school’s affordability is a big hurdle for most families.
"I do not want an application fee to be a burden when they’re looking at private education," he said, noting Trine dropped application fees when it went paperless several years ago.
Will Patch, associate director of admissions operations at Manchester University in North Manchester, shares a similar view. For undergrads, Manchester only charges $25 for the rare paper application because of the time required to manually enter the information into the school’s electronic system, he said.
Offering a free online application makes it easier for students, Patch said, recognizing that application fees can add up.
"It adds a barrier for families," he said, echoing a concern of Robert Confer, director of admissions at Indiana Tech.
Indiana Tech charges a $25, tax-deductible fee for its College of Professional Studies program but no longer charges traditional students to apply. The school eliminated the often-waived $50 application fee several years ago, Confer said, adding that one of Indiana Tech’s main priorities is to serve every student.
"We didn’t want the application fees to be a barrier," he said.
Ivy Tech Community College also doesn’t charge an application fee, and applicants to the University of Saint Francis may apply free online or they can pay $20 to apply with the paper application.
Applying to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne will cost less for first-time freshmen seeking admission for fall 2017, said Kenneth Christmon, associate vice chancellor for admissions.
Those students must apply through the Common Application and pay a $30 fee, he said. This is $20 less than the fee for to spring 2017 applicants, who are applying through another system, he said.
Christmon said the Common App, which IPFW joined Aug. 1, is "very extensive." He said it requires about 45 minutes to complete, whereas IPFW’s previous application would take students 15 to 20 minutes.
The Common App is known for making it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges all at one time. According to its website, nearly 1 million students use the app to submit more than 4 million applications each year.
Hill can attest to the Common App’s breadth, which she said she didn’t expect.
"It takes a lot of time," Hill said.
Whatever fees students may encounter during the application process, Case offered this tip for them and their parents: pay attention to deadlines and make sure to send everything the school requires because one missing piece can make the application incomplete.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS) contributed to this story.