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Saving money on college application costs

Courtesy of Kristina Ellis

It’s no secret that the college application process can get expensive fast. I mean, think about it: Admissions experts usually recommend students apply to anywhere between five and eight colleges, but some students apply to 10 or more! And most colleges charge an application fee—so that money really starts to add up.

Luckily, there’s something your high schooler can get called a fee waiver that will let them apply for free (yes, I said free) if they qualify, and this can seriously help cut back on college application expenses. And the best part? Getting these fee waivers typically only takes a few minutes. So, here are the fee waivers your kids need to be aware of and how to find them.

1. Fee Waivers Based on Financial Need

This is the most common type of application fee waiver. Some of the things that can qualify a student for a financial need-based fee waiver include:

  • Being eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program
  • Being eligible for (or having already received) an SAT or ACT fee waiver
  • Having a family income that falls within Income Eligibility Guidelines established by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service
  • Having a family that receives public assistance
  • Living in federally subsidized housing or a foster home, or being homeless
  • Being a ward of the state or an orphan

A high schooler can get these waivers from a few different sources. Here are the most important ones to be aware of:

  • National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC): Typically, a student can ask their school counselor to give them the NACAC waiver, or it can be downloaded from the NACAC website.
  • College Board: This is the organization behind the SAT. Students who got a fee waiver for their SAT are automatically qualified for college application fee waivers. Eligible seniors get these waivers when they receive their SAT score, and juniors will receive them in the fall of their senior year.
  • ACT, Inc.: This is the organization behind the ACT. If a student takes the ACT using a fee waiver, they can also ask for a Waiver or Deferral of College Admission Applications Fee, which they’ll then need to submit to the college they’re applying to.
  • The college or university where they plan to apply: Some schools will let students apply for an application fee waiver. The process will look different for each school, but it usually involves filling out a form that proves the student’s financial need. 

And here’s the great part: Because the NACAC, College Board and ACT, Inc. are separate organizations, qualifying students with financial need can use fee waivers from all three programs—meaning they can apply to multiple colleges free of charge. Score!

Not every college participates in the fee waiver program, so if your kids are eligible for waivers based on financial need, make sure they contact the admissions office at their chosen colleges to see if their waivers will be accepted.

2. Fee Waivers Based on Merit

Fee waivers based on financial need aren’t the only option out there. Students who have high GPAs and great test scores can ask their colleges of choice for a merit-based fee waiver. Schools are often willing to do this because they want the top-performing, high-achieving students to choose them. So if your kids are rock-star students, have them check out the websites of the schools they’re interested in or call the admissions office to see if they can save some money.

And if your high schooler is in the top 10–15% of their class but bottom third in family income, they might want to check out the Realize Your College Potential program sponsored by the College Board. Some schools also offer fee waivers to finalists and semifinalists for competitions like the National Merit Scholarship Program.

3. Fee Waivers Based on Expressed Interest

“Expressed interest” means students show they’re seriously thinking about applying to a specific college or university—either by visiting a campus, attending a college fair, or taking part in certain campus programs. When a student tours a school or meets with an admissions representative at a college fair, they may be personally given a waiver or invited to apply without an application fee. This is a great way to build a genuine connection with the school and save some cash in the process. Win-win.

4. Miscellaneous Waivers

None of the other fee waiver scenarios apply to your high schooler? Don’t worry, there are other things colleges may look at when determining whether or not to offer application fee waivers. Here are a few of them:

  • Service-based groups: Performing a certain number of service hours or being an alumnus of a service-based group (like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps) may qualify a student. Typically, these fee waivers are available to older students seeking admission.
  • University employees: University employees (and their dependents) may qualify for a waiver at their school.
  • Active service members, veterans or children of veterans: Some colleges offer fee waivers to active service members, veterans and children of veterans.
  • Online applicants: More and more schools these days are offering reduced application fees (or waiving fees completely) for online applications.
  • Special circumstances: If your family recently experienced a major hardship—like a job loss, medical emergency, recent death of a family member, or drop in finances—some schools offer waivers if you report and document your circumstances. Check with your kids’ potential schools to see what options they offer.

At the end of the day, don’t let pricey application fees keep your high schooler from applying to as many colleges as they want. Remember that it’s important to budget for all application expenses, but when you know where and how to get the fee waivers, you should be able to save big on that part of the process. I’m wishing you and your kids the best of luck with those college applications—you’ve got this!

Kristina Ellis
After winning $500K in scholarships and graduating from her dream school with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, Kristina Ellis set out to help students create their own plan to earn a debt-free education. She’s the bestselling author of Confessions of a Scholarship Winner and How to Graduate Debt-Free. She’s a featured expert in the 2021 documentary Borrowed Future: How Student Loans Are Killing the American Dream. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets, such as Fox & Friends, The Katie Couric Show, CBN, USA Today, Reuters, Seventeen, and Money. As a Ramsey Personality, Kristina helps thousands of families nationwide navigate the complex waters of college finance and graduate debt-free. 

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