Put your money where your pencil is: The corruption and cost of the college admissions process

By Noah Sollinger, Rebecca Charno, Leah Doubert, Jacob Gottesman, Emily Levine, and Kayla Hill

It’s no secret that college is expensive, with the average private university costing over $36,000 per year and in-state public schools costing over $10,000 per year.  Some universities cost upwards of $70,000 per year, meaning students are paying over $240,000 in total for their four year college education. While these costs seem exorbitant to begin with, these figures do not include the price of simply applying to college. 

From sending in applications to taking standardized tests, the college application process is accompanied by a steady flow of fees and charges that can drain the pockets of students and their families.  For students and families preparing to spend thousands of dollars on a college education, the money poured in to just getting into a university can be sickening on its own. While the process of applying to college should excite teenagers for their futures, more often than not they end up feeling overwhelmed by the costs of applying instead.

To start, simply sending an application to a college usually costs around $75. This price varies, and some universities such as Smith College and Tulane University have completely abolished their application fees, but the fee is still present at most top schools outside of the military academies.  It is seriously mind blowing that for the average student applying to eight schools, simply sending those applications can cost close to $600. Many universities offer fee waiver applications, but the completion process for these can be lengthy and frustrating.

It is also important to acknowledge that while there are many options to waive application fees, there may be students who do not qualify but would still benefit from not having to pay to submit their application.  The fee waiver programs offered by College Board, the Common Application, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling all have the same requirements for students hoping to receive application fee waivers.  

The conditions that qualify students for these programs are limited to receiving free lunch at school, having a family income within the USDA’s income eligibility guidelines, being homeless, living in a foster or federally subsidized home, or being an orphan.  While this system is effective and benefits these previously mentioned underprivileged communities, this system is still flawed. The fee waiver process fails to doesn’t recognize students who are in between the two financial extremes, or the fact that students who are not recognized as coming from low-income families may still need help with application fees.  

For those applying to several schools, the costs of application fees can quickly add up, but this price is miniscule in comparison to the price of private advisors and essay readers who may help with various parts of the process.  These people edit essays, resumes, and generally give their advice regarding the application process. Often times, students and their families meet with advisors throughout the process, from constructing a list of schools, to writing applications, to applying for financial aid. 

For the most part, advisors have significant experience with the college application process, and can offer valuable insight into what admissions officers are looking for and what has worked for their students in the past.  Advisors often cost hundreds of dollars per hour, and in certain areas like Port Washington, a lot of students applying to competitive schools are receiving help from an advisor of this nature.  

In a survey conducted by The Schreiber Times, around 36% of juniors and seniors responded that they are working with a paid college advisor and/or essay reader. While this is not the majority of students, a significant percentage of Schreiber students are receiving a resource that not everyone has access to due to their financial status. 

This poses a significant challenge to students who do not have the means to hire these people, as their application must compete with others that have been thoroughly edited by professionals in the field. 

Thankfully, Schreiber’s dedicated guidance and English departments have several resources readily available for students in the midst of this process.  Those looking for help with any writing piece or application should never hesitate to visit the guidance office or writing center to get help from a faculty member.  

It is important to note that Schreiber has taken steps to help level the playing field for students who cannot afford professional help.  Despite this, it is nearly impossible for guidance counselors, or teachers of any subject, to spend as much time on students’ essays and applications on top of their other responsibilities, compared to someone whose career focuses solely on individualized approaches to college acceptance. 

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to the ACT and SAT, the costs and inequality fails to end there.  The issues surrounding standardized tests are complicated, stress inducing, and prevalent.  

As students apply to college, they find themselves becoming more and more frustrated with testing organizations, such as the College Board and ACT, because of the fees surrounding these exams.  Not only do you have to pay to take the test, but you also have to pay to send your scores, add the writing section, prepare for the test, and get an expanded version of your score report. 

Additionally, some schools require the writing sections. This way, a student could end up paying $64.50 for the SAT with essay, $26 for the late registration fee, and another $12 for sending their score.  Thus, sending an SAT score to a singular university could potentially cost as much as $102.50. Doing the same math for the ACT—$62.50 with the essay, a late registration fee of $30, and a score report charge of $13—a student could potentially pay $105.50 to take and send an ACT score.  These total charges do not account for testing location or date changes, and waiting list reservation fees, which could be an additional $80.  

These exact numbers are extremely important because they highlight the absurdly high cost of taking the SAT and ACT.  The ACT and College Board are fully aware that they have a forced customer base, because of the requirements surrounding these exams, and they consciously take advantage of this situation.  As young students try to prepare for their future, testing companies over charge, and come up with creative ways to get as much money as they can from students.  

All of this can make it virtually impossible for someone to take these exams.  A student may not be able to pay for this test, or for the essay option, limiting the list of universities or colleges they can apply to. 

Additionally, many students who are not able to pay these high fees have very little options to avoid the payment. While there are fee waivers, they require each student to prove their financial restrictions, making the process to access and send your scores increasingly more difficult. 

ACT seems to be acknowledging the problem at hand by now offering individual test retakes starting in September of 2020.  In other words, if a student wants to raise their science score, they no longer have to test in every section; there will be separate rooms for those wanting to only take english, math, reading and science. 

This is supposed to reduce the total cost of taking the ACT, and while this is a step in the right direction, ACT’s ultimate motivation for updating their system is to stray business away from the SAT.

Ultimately, this situation is extremely unfair, and is relatively ignored.  Unless you spend considerable time with teenagers, or have a child in high school, the fees do not affect you.  Yet, these are costs that loom over the heads of students, and simply increase the already overwhelming amount of stress that young students face today.  

In addition to the SAT, the College Board organized the Advanced Placement Programs (APs): college level classes that are administered at high schools.  The many AP courses offered in U.S. started back in the 1950s with good intentions. The idea was to introduce these rigorous courses to high school students in order to prepare them for college.  There are over 35 courses offered, which allows students with all different interests to find a class that they are interested in.  

However, many people are critical of the College Board for claiming itself as a “non-profit,” when the huge organization operates like a business.  In fact, the College Board earns over half of its revenues from its Advanced Placement Programs, especially because each AP test is $96 per student.

Each year, as the competition to get into college increases, students feel more pressure to take more AP tests, which results in hundreds of dollars being spent.  The College Board has slowly integrated itself into many high schools across America, making students feel that it is necessary to take, and pay for, multiple AP classes in order to be at the top of their class.  

In fact, 86% of Schreiber students responded that they feel pressure to take AP classes to further enhance their college applications.   Along with the pressure of taking AP classes comes the pressure to get good scores on these tests.  A better AP score can be beneficial in terms of impressing colleges or placing out of introductory level college courses.  

Similar to the fee waiver associated with college applications, the College Board offers its own fee waiver for AP exams.  However, this is only a $32 fee reduction per exam for students with financial need.  With other reductions at the school level, the final reduced cost is $53 per exam.  

There is no option for the cost to be completely waived and any student taking an AP course must pay the fee if they are taking the AP test.  This may pose as a burden on students and cause them to shy away from taking more AP courses.  

According to The Schreiber Times survey, about 95% of seniors stated that they are taking at least one AP class, and close to 70% of these students are taking at least three AP classes.  The cost of these tests becomes very expensive, with most Schreiber seniors paying between $288 and $576 for these exams. Although there is no requirement to take AP classes, many students feel obligated to take on difficult AP, honors, or elective courses and in most cases there are high payments associated with theses classes.  

While some schools, such as North Shore High School in Glen Head, New York, pay for all of their students’ AP exam registration, a vast majority of high schools still make students pay for their own exams.  If more schools began paying for their students’ AP exams, it would be possible for more students from different financial backgrounds to enroll in challenging classes, leveling the playing field. 

Through all of these expenses related to separate subjects, standardized tests, college applications and APs, people still add the additional cost of tutoring. Tutoring organizations make a tremendous amount of money in affluent towns by promising higher test scores and admissions to more prestigious schools.  Yet, their message in helping anyone interested is false: they only help those who can pay. These lessons could cost up to $300 each. Those who cannot seek out individualized help, face the disadvantage of not getting inside information on materials, while others rely on the limited resources provided by their schools, teachers, or online research. 

While the literal tuition fees for college cannot be ignored, neither can the cost of applying to college: a large sum of money which includes SAT or ACT testing, tutoring, additional AP exams, application fees, and official score reports.  These fees are the product of a forced customer base for the College Board and ACT organizations.  

There is no simple solution, just as there is no easy fix for the rising price of tuition.  However, more and more universities are moving towards being test optional, to limit these costs and ensure equality of opportunity.  

What is supposed to be an exciting time for a teenager, one filled with anticipation of a high quality education, simply becomes a source of financial stress; the joys of planning your own future gets sidelined to the pressures that comes with the cost of doing so.  But, if more colleges and universities decide to become test optional, and if requirements for fee waivers could be broadened to accommodate more students, the severity of this issue could be greatly diminished.