Applying to College Is Expensive, But It Doesn’t Have to Be

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A lot of ink has been spilled on the rising cost of going to college. But the truth is that the costs start piling up even before you get accepted. From standardized testing to traveling for college tours, just getting in can be an expensive process.

Families do think of these costs,” says Kofi Kankam, founder and CEO of Admit.me, an online community for prospective college students. “However, they think of these costs as they’re [already] engaging in them.

It’s not something they think about beforehand.”

As in most things financial, planning ahead can help lighten the load, and in this case the difference can be dramatic. Here’s the lowdown.

You don’t need to spend $1,600 to get a 1600.

Some students (and parents) get into the mentality of, "'If I just hit this [SAT] score, I can get into this kind of school,'" says Kelly Peeler of NextGenVest, which helps students navigate college costs and student loans. With those high stakes in mind, they try to get that score at all costs.

Peeler says she often sees families racking up costs through a combination of a private college counselor—who can help with forming college lists, planning essays and strategizing applications—and test-specific tutors. That can get pricey: The average price for a tutor is $50/hour, according to Thumbtack.com, but it can depend on your region, and Kankam has seen some families spend up to $500/hour.

And many students aren’t just taking one SAT or ACT, but taking both tests multiple times.

“Parents, you have to know your kid,” says Kankam. “Some need more help than others.” But that help can come at a fraction of the cost. Look for local resources at your high school and in your community. “A lot [of teachers] do tutoring for exams in off hours,” he says.

Some other ways to save: Ask your English teacher to review your practice essays, opt for SAT prep books over SAT courses and look for free resources online. (Peeler recommends Khan Academy.) And if you meet the eligibility requirements, you can get fee waivers for SATs and ACTs, which can save you $46 and $29, respectively. 

You don’t need to shell out for world travel, either. 

One focus of many prospective students is profile-building: Developing your resume of experiences in order to stand out from the crowd. “[This] is the cost that concerns me the most,” says Kankam. In the last decade, as the Common Application has become more popular, and the competition for getting into ranked schools has risen, Kankam has seen more parents and students spending exorbitant sums of money on foreign travel to have that one-off experience to differentiate themselves.

As an alternative, he recommends joining something early, like a school club or team, and showing consistency and progress, eventually taking a leadership role. “Schools love that,” he says. The same goes for volunteering or work experience outside of school. 

Hone your list of schools carefully.  

The rising popularity of the Common Application has also increased the number of schools students are applying to, with some students submitting apps to 20 or more schools.

Last year, the average application fee for ranked schools was around $50, and it’s creeping up to $70, says Peeler.

“If you’re applying to ten colleges (which is also the number of colleges you can put on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you do the math and it’s around $700 just to apply.” The answer isn’t necessarily to reduce the number of schools, as Peeler says 9 or 10 schools is what college counselors generally advise, but rather being more thoughtful with your shortlist.

You want a mix of match schools (where you meet the average standards), safety schools (ones where you’re very likely to get in, based on your test scores and GPA), and reach schools (where you might be below the average, but offered better financial aid packages). And money should factor into the equation.

  Consider your Expected Family Contribution (EFC, which you’ll know after filling out the FAFSA), trends in financial aid, trends in tuition and your future income or hypothetical return.

Many college websites list the average aid they’ve given out, and you’ll want to see if it’s been stable or trending up or trending down. (If it’s down, question the financial validity of the school, says Peeler.) As for tuition, you can safely assume it’s trending up. Take a look at five majors you’re interested in and what the average alumni is earning with those degrees from each of the schools on your list. And even if you’re unsure about your major, don’t let indecision lead to casting too wide of a net. You should have “specific reasons” for applying to each college on your list, says David Klein, CEO of CommonBond, a student loan refinancing company. “Be thoughtful about where you want to apply, and, by nature, that will save money.”

Look for application fee waivers.   

You might be able to get some or all of your application fees waived. Peeler cautions, though, that fee waivers can be hard to come by. Not all schools offer them, and the ones that do often have eligibility requirements for them. Even still, it’s worth a shot. For example, if you take the SAT or SAT Subject Tests using the test fee waiver, you can apply to four schools, for free, from this list of over 2,000 participating schools. Additionally, The College Board has a directory of colleges that offer waivers.

If you have limited financial resources, you can also fill out a Request for Application Fee Waiver Form from The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), as well as The Common Application Fee Waiver. If you don’t think you meet the eligibility requirements—or you don’t see one of your schools listed on a directory—ask your guidance counselor for direction and visit the school’s site to see if you could request one directly from the school. In some instances, there are ways to apply online for free, or get the fee waived for either visiting the school or being related to alumni.  

Take a virtual tour and start networking. 

Visiting in-state colleges is one thing, but making trips to see out-of-state schools can lead to taking vacation days and spending hundreds of dollars on airfare and hotels.

Here, too, there are strategies to save. First, see if your top schools are visiting your hometown or nearby city. That can give you an opportunity to get in front of—and engage with—admissions officers, current students, and alum. A number of schools also have virtual college tours online. (NextGenVest has a Snapchat channel that features a new college tour every day.) And if you’re looking to get the inside scoop from students with similar interests as yours, reach out on social media to the school’s clubs, other current students, or alums. Keep it polite and professional, just like you would when reaching out to a prospective boss for an interview, and ask for a few minutes of the person’s time. “[The purpose of visiting a school] is to get a feel of the culture and interact with campus life,” says Kankam. “If you look at those goals, you don’t need to be on campus to achieve them.” 

With Kelly Hultgren