Why do we have application fees?

Casey Greene May 01, 2019

Context

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.

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.

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.