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How to Get College Application Fee Waivers

I was once on College Confidential’s message boards when I came across a post from a teenager lamenting that her parents didn’t have the money to give her the $50 she needed for a college application.

It broke my heart to realize that some families are so cash-strapped that they can’t even afford college application fees, let alone college tuition.

But going to college can often be the best shot that many poor kids have for the opportunity and better life chances.

So when I think about how many students must be in that teen girl’s same position, it’s really distressing — and it should bother all of us.

No matter your family income, college applications aren’t cheap — especially if you’re filling out numerous applications, as most students do during college application season.

According to recent data from U.S. News, the average college application fee charged by 889 ranked institutions was nearly $45. Among the top 64 American schools with the priciest applications, the average application fee was $78. Overall, most competitive U.S. schools charge students $50 to $100 to submit an application.

Accountant Ed Fulbright remembers when his daughter — who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — was applying to multiple schools.

“She’s fiercely independent, and she filled out all her applications herself,” he recalls, adding with a laugh: “The only time we ever saw them was to give her the credit card to pay the application fees.”

All joking aside, let’s say you apply to 10 schools (not uncommon these days), and the average cost of each application is roughly $50. Bam! There goes $500, yet another hit to the family budget as you deal with ever-rising college costs.

That money is spent just to give you (or your child) a shot at getting into college. Since the admission process is fraught with uncertainty — thanks to a host of school variables and a slew of subjective factors — your application to any one particular college is rarely a sure bet. In most cases, no one can say with 100% confidence that you’ll get accepted into any specific four-year school. Nevertheless, college application fees are almost universally non-refundable. Moreover, even though you might submit ten applications, you can only attend one school at a time.

Using College Application Waivers To Save Hundreds of Dollars

For all these reasons, it’s important to know the ten ways students can get college application fee waivers.

A college application fee waiver will let you apply at no cost to the college of your choice, keeping money in your bank account and lowering your pre-college expenses.

The ten college application fee waiver strategies are:

  1. Get a fee waiver based on economic need
  2. Get a fee waiver for being a great student
  3. Get a fee waiver for visiting a campus 
  4. Get a fee waiver for attending a college fair
  5. Get a fee waiver for applying to or attending a “Fly-In” program
  6. Get a fee waiver for special circumstances
  7. Get a fee waiver for service activities
  8. Get a fee waiver for applying early
  9. Get a fee waiver for applying during National College Week
  10. Get a fee waiver for being a child of a veteran or a college employee

In my book, College Secrets for Teens, I explain each of these strategies in detail and how they can help you save hundreds of dollars in college application costs.

In this article, however, I’ll describe one of the key ways to get a fee waiver – because you need one financially.

Get a Fee Waiver Based on Economic Need

Suppose you need a waiver to submit a college application. In that case, you can get one from one of three sources: the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the College Board (which administers the SAT), and the college or university where you want to apply.

NACAC and SAT application waivers are only available for U.S. citizens. The same applies to most institutional releases, though international students should check with their target schools to confirm their rules and policies.

Regardless of which entity provides the fee waiver — the NACAC, the College Board, or a specific post-secondary school — the most common way to get a release for a college application is to qualify for one based on economic need.

You can use several methods to prove your genuine economic need for an application fee waiver. One such way that colleges determine economic need is simply based on your household income.

Income Requirements

Generally, you may qualify for an application fee waiver if your annual household income is about $55,000, assuming a family of four. However, qualifying income levels can be more or less than that figure, depending on the number of people in your household. Other income-related qualifications, such as preparing for free or reduced lunch, will get you waivers too.

You can obtain a NACAC fee waiver, called a “Request for Waiver of College Application Fee” form, from your high school counselor. Likewise, if you were eligible for a fee waiver for the SAT or SAT Subject Tests, you can ask your high school counselor to give you up to four fee waivers for your college applications.

You simply fill out the top portion of either form (the NACAC waiver or the SAT fee waiver), have a high school counselor or other third party sign it, then turn in the form along with your college application. This way, you need not send in an application fee.

Who Qualifies for Fee Waivers?

The NACAC form outlines various circumstances that make students economically qualified to get waivers for college application fees. Among those circumstances:

      • You are eligible to receive an SAT or ACT fee waiver

      • You are enrolled in or eligible to participate in the free or reduced lunch program at school

      • You are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids low-income students (i.e., TRIO programs, like Upward Bound)

      • Your family receives public assistance (such as food stamps — nationwide, about 41 million Americans, roughly 12% of all citizens, receive food stamps)

      • You live in federally subsidized public housing, a foster home, or are homeless

      • You are a ward of the state or an orphan

      • Do You face any other challenges that would make paying college application fees a financial hardship

    Note two specific points about the first circumstance described and the last scenario.

    For the first situation, realize that you may have taken the SAT or ACT but not actually received a waiver for test fees. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a College Board/SAT college application fee waiver. However, colleges only require that you be eligible for an SAT waiver — not that you use a waiver.

    For the last scenario, be aware that a high school principal, school counselor, financial aid officer, or community leader must sign the form and briefly explain your extenuating circumstances.

    Also, in all the circumstances listed above, a signature from a third party is mandatory to use a fee waiver from NACAC.

    If your school doesn’t have NACAC waiver forms, you can obtain a fee waiver form from the NACAC website.

    Obtaining a College Fee Waiver Online

    The process for using a fee waiver is pretty easy if you are filling out college applications online. Once you get to the “Payment” section, which comes right before you submit your application, just indicate that you are using a waiver. That will allow your web-based college application to be accepted and processed.

    Most two- and four-year colleges (about 80% of them) do honor fee waivers granted by both the College Board and NACAC. You can find an online list of schools that accept the College Board’s fee waivers at the College Board’s Fee Waiver Directory of Colleges. For the most up-to-date directory and information, visit collegeboard.org/waiver-colleges. The NACAC does not maintain a directory of colleges that accept its waiver request form.

    A fee waiver is a great way to save money during college applications. So be sure to seek one if you qualify.

    Finally, if you can’t obtain a waiver for any reason, one final strategy is to simply apply to schools that don’t charge application fees at all. NACAC officials say more than 500 U.S. colleges and universities don’t require application fees. Instead, these schools tend to fall into one of the following categories: liberal arts schools; online institutions; Christian colleges; and military academies, like the U.S. Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy.

    For more tips on getting college application fee waivers and saving money on college-related expenses, check out a copy of College Secrets for Teens.

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