Why do we have application fees?


I’m considering this question in regards to PhD programs in the biological sciences. For a brief bit of context, these are programs where trainees, once they join a program, have their tuition paid for and also receive a stipend. The funds to offer the stipend and tuition coverage primarily come from an institution, from training grants (which are given to an individual or institution to support training in areas of need), and from research project grants (which are given to an institution for the purposes of carrying out a specific research project). In short, the training program includes classwork, which is an investment that the institution makes in each student, as well as a research component, which involves the trainee carrying out a project that also benefits the institution.

What are the application fees?

When students want to apply to one of these programs, they are often required to pay a fee to have their application considered. The fee to apply to our Genomics and Computational Biology (GCB) program for the 2019 class year was $80. This means that we raise from applicants, at most (see the bit on fee waivers below), about $16000 per year if we assume roughly 200 applications. A student applying to 10 PhD programs would spend roughly $800 with the hopes of matriculating into one.

What are the arguments in favor of application fees?

I’ve heard a few arguments for fees. I can continue to add to this list if folks provide new reasons (mention @greenescientist on twitter or email greenescientist@gmail.com). If you want to add a reason, please keep it to a few sentences or provide a link to a twitter thread / blog post / something else that I can link to.

  • It signifies that the applicant is seriously considering the program. By paying the fee the student is essentially anteing up and saying they would be interested in attending the program if invited.
  • It raises funds that can be used for purposes that would be otherwise difficult to cover on certain other sources of support (e.g., beer at interview weekends).
  • It does not create a barrier to anyone because domestic applicants can request fee waivers. I am under the impression that the Penn Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) program policies are to grant waivers to any domestic applicant who requests one.

What are my concerns with application fees?

I worry that the fees present barriers for reasons that I’ll detail below. I can also continue to add to this list if folks provide new reasons (mention @greenescientist on twitter or email greenescientist@gmail.com). If you want to add a reason, please keep it to a few sentences or provide a link to a twitter thread / blog post / something else that I can link to.

  • The barrier imposed by fees is unequally felt by students. Students for whom $1000 is a negligible cost at the conclusion of their undergraduate careers may apply to many programs, increasing their likelihood of admission, while those for whom this is a major cost may apply to fewer programs. Even with fee waivers (which seem to only apply to domestic students), students who face this hurdle and who do not realize they can ask for a fee waiver, who feel that asking for a fee waiver may reveal something that they do not wish to share, or who feel that asking for a fee waiver burdens a program may apply to fewer programs reducing their chances of admission.
  • The amount of money that a program gains is not that substantial relative to other program expenses. For our example of the Penn GCB program, applicants’ fees provide about $16,000 in revenue per year. However, the stipends alone for each entering class of roughly ten students run more than $300,000 per year. Including the tuition, and the fact that the first two years are covered by institutional funds at Penn, each class of students for a ten-person program must cost at least $650,000 before students are transitioned onto research grant support. A more accurate number is probably ~$960,000, but I wanted to provide the most conservative estimate.
  • Programs benefit from attracting the best possible set of matriculating students. Students are engaged in both coursework and research. Their research efforts directly benefit the institution. Thus while it is true that students are competing for spots in each class, programs are also competing for students. Admission to a PhD program can be quite difficult to predict and depends on certain factors related to the student (application strength as perceived by an admissions committee) but also factors beyond the control of the student (the composition of the rest of the applicant pool with respect to research interests and potential research advisors). It seems unfair and inefficient to penalize students for applying to programs that may initially seem like a reach.

What could the next steps be?

I have been made aware that at Penn we looked into the effect of application fees and little evidence was found that our fees were a barrier. I did look through the peer-reviewed literature a bit, and I couldn’t find data on the results of a complete elimination of application fees. I did find results that suggested that granting fee waivers as a matter of routine could be helpful. It seems that perhaps there isn’t evidence simply because the experiment hasn’t been done.

I hope that one or more graduate programs at an institution will run an experiment with the complete elimination of application fees. It is probably best, from an experimental design point of view, to eliminate fees for randomly selected set of programs while leaving other programs at the institution’s application fee unchanged. Interesting outcomes to examine would include committee-assigned scores for applicants invited to interview; the number of first generation, low income, and underrepresented minority scientists invited to interview; and the yield from the interview process. I had hoped that we would be able to run such an evaluation at Penn, but this will not come to pass. I am posting this to the blog in the hopes that another institution will find the question to be worth asking.

Update 5/1/19:

After posting, I was pointed to CMU’s Department of Philosophy’s elimination of application fees in 2017.