The Complicated Business of College Applications

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by Maria Ann Roglieri

The process of applying to college has been getting more complicated as students are applying to more colleges, and colleges are doing more self-marketing. It has also become quite a business for the more than 4,000 colleges and universities nationwide, the college testing services, and a wide variety of college prep counselors and tutors.

We think a lot about the cost of college as tuition and fees, and room and board. But we don’t necessarily consider pre-college costs: entrance exams fees, application fees, and many services offered by tutors and counselors. The high cost of getting students into a college ultimately represents only a fraction of the high cost of sending students to college. Still, these costs add up. The initial application costs are incurred for college admission testing services — PSAT, SAT and/or ACT, SAT Subject tests, and even Advanced Placement (AP) exams; college application fees; fees to send transcripts and scores, and fees to apply for financial aid. These are just the minimal costs incurred; many Westchester parents invest further in college entrance exam test prep, and college counselors.

The college entrance exams are administered by two testing companies, ACT (ACT) and The College Board (PSAT, SAT, SAT subject tests and AP).  Only 850 undergraduate institutions accept applications without exams, so the majority of students must take these exams. Students have a choice about whether to take the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, but they must do so in order to get college credit for high school AP courses. There are multiple fees for the entrance exams themselves (see below).

The testing services profit handsomely from these test fees: the College Board earned $333 million in fees for the PSAT and SAT in 2015, and $383 million in fees for the AP exams and the corresponding instructive program in 2014. The College Board even earns fees for its College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS), a required application for financial aid that goes to every school to which a student applies. Although it offers a fee waiver to students with extreme financial need, the Board has been widely criticized by various groups (i.e. Americans for Educational Testing Reform, and National Center for Fair and Open Test) for allegedly taking advantage of its nonprofit status, overpaying its executives instead of reducing the cost of the entrance exam fees, and directly lobbying legislatures and government officials on its behalf.

While the tests are mandatory, tutoring for these tests is not, but has become a more than $4 billion industry nationwide. In Westchester, many students elect to take prep courses or have private tutoring through national companies (e.g. Kaplan, Princeton Review and Varsity Tutors) or private local tutors in private homes, a center, a local library or via live video chat. Hourly rates are typically $33 (in-class session) and $72-$350 (private, customized tutoring) An SAT prep class that ran for 36 hours over 12 weeks would cost $1,188, while 36 hours of a private SAT tutor with Kaplan (at $147/hour) would cost $5,292. Kaplan partners with some local Westchester schools to discount its programs 40%.

When students take entrance exams, their information is sold by The College Board to admissions offices around the country for $.40/ name. The prospective applicants are unaware that their personal data has been sold until, in 10th grade, they begin receiving emails (5-15 daily) and brochures (3- 4 daily) from a myriad of colleges. The emails present a pithy quote or a “hook” to get the students to open them and begin to consider that particular college. The glossy book-length brochures or “college viewbooks” feature a set of good-looking, diverse-by design students, famous alumni, and lavish campus facilities including rock climbing walls, luxurious pools, grand theaters, etc. Our award for best marketing materials in this year’s crop goes to Swarthmore and Carlton, which sent a brilliant, thoughtful and truly unique viewbook, and a very useful frisbee, respectively.

Nationwide, students typically apply to 10-20 colleges a year. This number has increased significantly with the introduction of the standardized Common Application form and represents a boon for the colleges. More applications means an increase in fee revenue and in prestige.

According to US News, the average amount charged for an application fee in 2015 was $41.  The most common application fee was $50, while the most expensive was $90 (Stanford). In 2015, Penn State University made over $4 million from 87,859 undergraduate applications, at $50 per application.  UCLA, meanwhile, made over $7 million from the more than 100,000 applications, at $70 per application.

Colleges and universities nationwide waive application fees if the applicant demonstrates financial need for a waiver, or is “desirable” (with a special skill that the school needs, or a national merit semifinalist). Some schools waive application fees across the board in order to get more applicants. The money lost on potential college application fees is made up through tuition for a higher number of freshmen.

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