Paying for college doesn't just begin in your first semester freshman year. Rather, prospective college students can expect to start funding their higher education in high school -- when they send in their college applications.
According to the National Association of College Admission Counselors, almost one-third of high school seniors apply to seven or more colleges. With today's college application fees averaging $38 -- not to mention an average high of $77 among the nation's elite schools -- students can expect to shell out hundreds of dollars in college fees long before their first tuition payment is due.
But there are ways to avoid paying such hefty fees if you know where to look. With the help of our seasoned college experts, we've compiled a list of tips to help students save money when applying to colleges this fall.
1. Apply for early admission.
For students who already have their top choice school in mind, consider applying during early admission. If you're accepted, you won't have to submit costly applications elsewhere. Mark Kantrowitz, the vice president of edvisors.com and a nationally recognized higher education expert, says this tactic "can save the student a lot of money on application fees to safety schools. It also alleviates a lot of stress, potentially improving the applications to other match and reach schools."
2. Call schools to ask about fee waivers.
Clear up any lingering questions you may have by talking with an admissions counselor at the school you're applying to. Mike Frantz, vice president of enrollment at Buena Vista University, recommends asking the school if it will waive the fee for you. "The worst they can say is 'no,' and you've lost nothing in the process."
Don't be afraid to ask your high school counselor about fee waivers as well. "Many colleges will waive the application fee if your guidance counselor attests that you have financial limitations or difficulties," says Frantz. "Develop a good working relationship with your guidance counselor and ask them to reach out on your behalf."
3. Apply to colleges that offer free online applications.
Not all colleges charge students to apply. Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant career services director at Monmouth College, advises students to "check online to see if the college in which you are interested in offers free online applications." Kinkaid notes that the many colleges offering free online applications include Millikin University, Smith College, and Drake University. Juniata College, Colby College, and Carleton College are just a few more top schools that don't charge application fees.
If your top choice school does not offer free applications, fear not: many colleges that do require payment "will waive application fees if a student is willing to apply online," Art Goon, the vice president of enrollment management at Delaware Valley College, says. Though not always the case, he says "online applications save schools the cost of employing a staff member to physically enter the application information."
4. Take a campus tour.
In addition to learning firsthand whether a college is a good fit for you, some schools will waive application fees for students who attend a campus tour. Goon says many schools, including Delaware Valley College, "are willing to extend an application fee waiver to students who show a serious and genuine interest in attending their specific institution." To learn more about this opportunity, be sure to talk with current students, alumni, or admissions counselors at your top choice schools.
5. Include test scores on your transcripts.
In addition to your college application, most colleges require applicants to submit official SAT and/or ACT scores from the testing service, adding even more financial strain on students. A great way to avoid paying these extra fees is to "ask your high school to put your test scores on your transcript," Frantz says. "Many colleges will accept that as an official score report and it may save you from paying extra to have scores sent to more colleges than the testing services allow."
Similar to application fees, testing services sometimes waive their fee for students in need, Kinkaid adds. Students with difficult family financial situations will sometimes qualify for a fee waiver from the College Board.
6. Apply with the Common Application.
Accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities across the country, the Common Application -- also referred to as the Common App -- allows students to submit a single application to virtually all of their prospective colleges. But although the Common App saves students time on applying, it might not save them money; students are still required to pay a one-time application fee to each school on their list. As an extra incentive to use the Common App, Kantrowitz notes that some colleges may waive the application fee for students who choose to apply via the centralized platform. Check with your admissions counselor to find out if your prospective colleges might offer this free pass.