How to Apply to College for Free

Applying to college for free can offer students a chance to explore their options while also possibly saving hundreds of dollars.

The benefits of applying to multiple colleges are plentiful. Students can aim for their dream schools, assure entry into colleges where acceptance is likely, find the right fit and compare financial aid packages to see which institution is the most affordable for their family.

And most first-time freshmen do just that, with more than 80% applying to at least three colleges, according to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some experts even suggest shooting for a far higher number. Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a California-based educational consulting company, encourages the students he works with to apply to 14 colleges.

“The entire probability and risk distribution spectrum will be represented with 14 schools,” Koh says.

[Read: A Complete Guide to the College Application Process.]

Cardinal Education breaks that spectrum of 14 schools down into six categories: upper reach colleges, reach, upper target, target, lower target and safety schools. That well-rounded list, Koh says, means a student will almost certainly be accepted somewhere while also taking a shot at top schools. If a student opts for a shorter list, then he or she will “need to cut from the dream schools,” Koh says.

What to Know About the Costs of College Applications

But aiming for such a high number may be challenging for families with limited means, considering that colleges with application fees charge, on average, $44, per data from 936 ranked schools that submitted this information to U.S. News in an annual survey. Some colleges charge even more, such as the University of California–San Diego, where students must pay $105 to apply, the highest application fee reported to U.S. News in 2020.

To be clear, at some colleges, prospective students can apply for free. But by the numbers, if a student applied to 14 schools that charge the average $44 fee, the cost would amount to more than $600. Even applying to at least three schools, as NACAC data suggests most students do, at the average fee of $44 would cost more than $130.

Those costs, some experts say, create barriers to college access.

“Sometimes we forget about the everyday barriers that students go through, even before they get to college,” says Marshall Anthony Jr., a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that looks at public issues such as higher education.

[Read: A Student Guide to Virtual College Admissions Tools.]

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts weighed in on application fees earlier this year, tweeting during her presidential campaign that “as a senior in high school, my family didn’t have the money for college application fees–let alone a college education.”

Prospective college students have taken to social media to bemoan the high costs of application fees, with some asking celebrities to cover those costs.

As odd as the request may sound, it’s not unprecedented, considering that some influential people have helped students out with application fees.

NBA legend Allen Iverson, for example, teamed up with athletic apparel company Reebok earlier this year to pay college application fees for more than 400 students at his high school alma mater. And while not exactly a celebrity, a Georgia school district superintendent made national news last year by donating his $10,000 bonus to pay for seniors’ college application fees.

Anthony says money for college application fees could be better spent elsewhere, such as paying for textbooks or other financial needs that come with getting an education. “Every dollar counts. Especially when you are from a low-income background.”

Three Ways to Get Free College Applications

For financially strapped families, the good news is that there are ways to apply to college for free. One common method is to acquire a fee waiver through a high school guidance counselor. Anthony says that high school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch will be eligible for such a waiver, though he notes they bear the burden of asking their guidance counselor about it.

“I don’t think the onus or responsibility should be on students to cover a cost that shouldn’t exist in the first place,” Anthony says. “But the reality is the cost does exist, and typically it has been on the students and families to find a way to get around that cost.”

Another way to apply to college for free: Just ask the admissions office for a waiver.

Considering the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted earnings for many families, Koh says students should make colleges aware of their financial needs and limitations. “This year, I think more colleges than ever will be flexible,” Koh says.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Affects College Admissions.]

Anthony adds that some states, such as North Carolina, also offer free college application weeks. Students should use that time slot to apply to college for free, though he notes not all colleges participate.

Students should also check out the College Board website, which offers information on which schools charge application fees as well as details on free college applications through fee waivers.

Of the top-ranked National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, every college that reported this data charges more than the national average for application fees. Those fees, however, are typically waived for students with financial need. See the lists below for the cost of application fees at top-ranked colleges in the 2021 rankings.

College Application Fees at Top National Universities

School (state) U.S. News rank Application fee Application fee waived for students with financial need
Princeton University (NJ) 1 $70 Yes
Harvard University (MA) 2 $75 Yes
Columbia University (NY) 3 $85 Yes
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4 (tie) $75 Yes
Yale University (CT) 4 (tie) $80 Yes
Stanford University (CA) 6 (tie) $90 Yes
University of Chicago 6 (tie) $75 Yes
University of Pennsylvania 8 $75 Yes
California Institute of Technology 9 (tie) $75 Yes
Johns Hopkins University (MD) 9 (tie) $70 Yes
Northwestern University (IL) 9 (tie) $75 Yes

College Application Fees at Top National Liberal Arts Colleges

School (state) U.S. News rank Application fee Application fee waived for students with financial need
Williams College (MA) 1 $65 Yes
Amherst College (MA) 2 $65 Yes
Swarthmore College (PA) 3 $60 Yes
Pomona College (CA) 4 (tie) $70 Yes
Wellesley College (MA) 4 (tie) $50 Yes
Bowdoin College (ME) 6 (tie) $65 Yes
Claremont McKenna College (CA) 6 (tie) $70 Yes
United States Naval Academy (MD) 6 (tie) N/A N/A
Carleton College (MN) 9 (tie) N/A N/A
Hamilton College (NY) 9 (tie) $60 Yes
Middlebury College (VT) 9 (tie) $65 Yes
Washington and Lee University (VA) 9 (tie) $60 Yes

The application fee data above is correct as of Sept. 14, 2020. Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

Princeton, Williams Top 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings

How Coronavirus Is Upending High School Extracurricular Activities

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