How to Apply for College for Free: Fee Waiver Programs for Disadvantaged Students

In today’s world, the rising costs of tuition have made “affordable education” seem like a contradiction. However, the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office provides a glimmer of hope for students grappling with the enormous burden of financing their college education. While these programs aim to alleviate the financial strain, many students still face significant barriers even before applying to college. College application fees, which can amount to hundreds of dollars, may deter students from pursuing their dreams.

In this article, we will explore various programs and initiatives that provide assistance to students who cannot afford the costs associated with applying for college.

The Challenge of College Application Costs

Applying to college is an exciting but financially demanding process. College application fees alone can accumulate quickly, with most fees averaging around $50. For high school seniors, experts recommend applying to at least eight schools, which adds up to a hefty $400.

Moreover, college entrance exams such as the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are prerequisites for application, adding another $60 and $68 respectively. When considering these expenses, it becomes clear that the cost of simply applying for college is a substantial barrier for many students.

Programs Easing the Financial Burden

Fortunately, there are programs available to alleviate the financial strain for students who cannot afford application costs. One such program is the SAT and ACT Fee Waiver, offered by College Board and American College Testing respectively. Students who already receive government assistance or live in public housing, as well as orphans and wards of the court, can apply for these waivers through their high school counselors.

Additionally, the Common Application accepts SAT or ACT waivers as qualifiers for their own fee waivers, further expanding opportunities for students in need.

The Limitations of Fee Waiver Programs

While the SAT and ACT Fee Waiver programs are commendable, their reach is not without limitations. According to College Board, approximately 2,000 schools participate in their fee waiver program. While this may seem like a significant number, it means that over 60% of schools in the country are not participating. Even more concerning is the fact that the schools that are intended to be accessible to all students often do not participate.

For example, while an elite private institution like Columbia University may grant tuition waivers, SUNY New Paltz, a public university, may not have the same resources to do so. This raises questions about the accessibility of higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The NACAC Fee Waiver as an Alternative

To address the limitation of the above programs, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers a fee waiver for students applying to schools not covered by other fee waiver initiatives.

While the NACAC applies many of the same eligibility criteria as the SAT and ACT waivers, it allows school counselors to advocate for students who may not qualify based on strict guidelines. This additional option provides further support to students who may be struggling with the costs associated with college applications.

Moving Towards Greater Accessibility

While fee waiver programs alleviate some of the financial burdens associated with college application costs, there is still progress to be made. Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds still struggle to cover the miscellaneous expenses of applying to college.

Although some schools have waived application fees entirely and others offer fee waivers upon request, limiting the options of disadvantaged students to these schools is not ideal. It is essential to ensure that all students, regardless of their financial background, have equal access to the life-changing opportunities that higher education offers.


The Federal Student Aid office plays a crucial role in making college education financially attainable for students through programs such as the SAT and ACT Fee Waivers. However, the limitations of these programs and the barriers they pose for disadvantaged students illustrate the need for continued progress.

College application costs should not dictate a student’s choices or limit their opportunities for higher education. By recognizing the importance of affordable access to college applications, we can empower students from all walks of life to pursue their dreams and create a more equitable educational landscape.

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