Carnegie Mellon Philosophy Eliminates Application Fee (guest post by Kevin Zollman)


The Department of Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has eliminated the fee for applying to its graduate programs. Below is a guest post* by Kevin Zollman, associate professor of philosophy at CMU and the philosophy department’s director of graduate studies, explaining the rationale for this change.


Our “No Fee” Experiment
by Kevin Zollman

Applying to graduate school is an arduous and expensive process. A quick survey of twelve institutions atop the Philosophical Gourmet Report found an average application fee of $94 for domestic students and $97 for foreign students. As an additional expense, most universities require official copies of GRE scores, TOEFL scores, and transcripts; each has an associated fee. In total it costs over $100 for every graduate school an applicant chooses. For perspective, that is over thirteen hours of labor at federal minimum wage per school. To make matters worse, admission rates are so low that many applicants must apply to many institutions in order to get into just one.

We find this state of affairs concerning. So, beginning this year, Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Philosophy has decided to stop charging an application fee for its masters and PhD programs. Since we accept scanned copies of transcripts, GRE, and TOEFL scores, applying to CMU will now have a marginal cost of zero dollars (assuming the applicant has taken the relevant standardized tests).

We realize that not all schools have the stability and institutional flexibility to do this, and we do not aim to criticize others who charge a fee for applications. But we would like to take a moment to explain our reasoning in the hopes that others might reevaluate the fees they charge and, where possible, discuss this with university administration.

Why should anyone charge an application fee in the first place? Obviously, it provides a revenue stream. At a time of shrinking university budgets, especially in the humanities, departments are hard pressed to find money where they can. Of course, not every source of revenue should be tapped, and we are concerned that application fees may exacerbate a problem philosophy needs to solve.

Self-selection is often used to justify the fee in the first place: if there is a cost to applying, then applicants who know themselves to be unqualified might opt not to apply. These decisions save the department time and resources by eliminating applicants who are unlikely to be successful.

We agree that admission fees likely induce self-selection, but we are concerned some criteria for self-selection are not relevant criteria for admission. The first, and rather obvious, point is that students with less money will tend to select out more than those from wealthy backgrounds. My parents paid for my application fees, and as a result I applied to a large number of schools. Had they not paid for my applications, I might have applied to fewer school. In fact, I might have opted to skip the very school where I matriculated. Students who are not so lucky will inevitably apply to fewer schools. Because of the chancy nature of applications, they will also reduce the probability of going to graduate school as a result. We obviously should not use socio-economic status as a selection mechanism for our field. But fees will, to some extent, have exactly this effect.

Since socio-economic status correlates with race and nationality, it is likely that fees are discouraging racial diversity in our applicant pools and ultimately among professional philosophy. Fees may, therefore, be one among many causes for the lack of demographic diversity in our applicant pools.

Most schools offer some form of fee waiver, but in our experience they are rarely requested. It is hard to know whether few of our applicants need them, or instead, if asking for a waiver is itself a cost that discourages applications. We could speculate, but without any real data it is hard to know, and so worries about pernicious self-selection remain.

Even among those of similar socio-economic status, self-selection may have differential impacts. Critically, self-selection is only desirable if students have an accurate assessment of their chances for admission. There is some evidence that women tend to underestimate their academic abilities relative to men. It therefore seems possible that encouraging self-selection may induce more women to self-select out than men, even if they are of the same socio-economic status and have the same chance of being admitted.

Much of this is speculative, and so we view our “no fee” policy as an experiment. We will be collecting and, to the extent possible, sharing data about the impact of eliminating our application fee. Of course, we are only one institution, and our results might not generalize. But we hope that our experiment might prompt other programs to ask themselves, and their institution’s administrators, whether application fees might be doing more harm than good for the profession as a whole.


Art image: detail of dollar collage by Mark Wagner

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Alexander Guerrero
4 years ago

This is great, and the reasons offered for the decision seem compelling. A practical question: how is the Department of Philosophy able to do this at CMU? Is this a decision that individual departments at CMU are allowed to make? I’d like to pursue a similar change at Rutgers, but I expect that these things are set at the level of the graduate school, rather than particular departments. And if there are 200-300 applications, each which would have brought in ~$100, that is not a trivial amount of money each year for a department budget to absorb.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Alexander Guerrero
4 years ago

Alexander –

Thank you.

Indeed our situation at CMU is different from most universities. Every department here controls their own admissions process from the application to admission stage. We can choose, on our own, what electronic system to use, how to structure the application, and how much to charge. (It’s a bit of a pain most times, because *I* have to do all that stuff 🙂 )

But, that does afford us the ability to set our own fees. By eliminating the fee, we are giving up a substantial amount of money. But, in this case, we thought it was worth it.

For a few years now, we have accepted “unofficial” scanned transcripts, GRE and TOEFL scores. This by itself saves the applicant money and doesn’t cost us anything. I am not particularly concerned about the loss of revenue to ETS.Report

Fritz
Fritz
4 years ago

Kevin, this is a great initiative. How, though, does the Department unilaterally waive the fees–at my university those fees go to the Graduate College and we have no say over it. Also, we don’t get any of the revenue for it, so it’s not like we’d be making a decision to be forgoing our own revenue so much as arguing with the Graduate College that it should forgo its. I don’t think we’d win that argument, but would welcome any ideas you have on it. Working at a terminal MA program where our PhD aspirants apply to 15-20 schools–which could easily be 10% of their total income for the year–we recognize this as a serious concern.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Fritz
4 years ago

Fritz –
I’m glad you agree with us about the concern. And, I completely understand your situation. At CMU things are very department-centric. We completely control our graduate admissions process. We set the fees and we get the revenue. (We also have to pay for the online application system ourselves, however.) Since that’s our situation, we’ve opted to pay our costs out of general departmental funds and forgo the income.

Obviously your situation is different. One thing you might look into is whether or not you can accept “unofficial” scanned transcripts (see my comment to Alexander above). We’ve done this for a few years, and it does cost our university or department anything.Report

SCM
SCM
4 years ago

I’m very sympathetic to this. When I applied to grad schools in the US from South Africa, I was only able to afford the application fees for four schools (on top of GRE fees etc.). I only applied to the fifth school bc my cousin in California sent me a cheque for them — and it was only this fifth school that admitted me. So I’m acutely aware of my good fortune and that others will not be so lucky in who their cousins are.

I’m curious about:
(a) Whether there was any discussion of setting a nominal fee — e.g., $5 or $10 — to dissuade people who do not have any realistic hope of being admitted, or whether it was thought that any fee low enough to be inclusive of all socioeconomic groups would be too low to discourage pointless applications, and
(b) Whether you could update us once the application deadline has passed re: your stats. — Thanks.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  SCM
4 years ago

Thank you for your comments.

(a) We did discuss having some kind of nominal fee like you suggested, but we decided that there might be an important signal sent by saying “no fee” rather than “small fee.” The number zero has a certain psychological effect, you know?

If we find that we are being overrun by completely unqualified applicants, we might consider doing that. But, it takes some time and effort to fill out our application. So, we expect that the effort required might serve the same function as a small fee.

(b) We hope to make the data public in the coming years. Things are a little tricky with respect to data privacy, but I expect at a minimum we will be able to say something like: “we saw a XX% percentage increase in applications and a YY% percent increase from demographic group ZZ.” That sort of thing.

We haven’t explicitly discussed what data we will and won’t be able to release with the relevant lawyers yet. We’ll do that once we see what happens and what is interesting.Report

r
r
4 years ago

I like this. One cost you left out is the money paid to portfolio websites that collect and centralize letters of recommendation so that you do not have to bother your letter writers about every place you apply. Those charge a fee every time you send letters to a new school. Unless CMU does not accept letters from these sites, there could still be a fee to apply for that reason.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  r
4 years ago

Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t aware that students were using these services for grad school applications. We would certainly allow it, but it is not required by our system. I would hope that no faculty member requires a student to use one of these systems in order to write a letter. (Or, if the faculty member did, that they offered to pay the cost.)Report

David
David
4 years ago

Wonderful initiative! Do people here know of other departments with similar policies? Thanks!Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  David
4 years ago

Thank you! We are not aware of any other university that has done this. I did not do a systematic study, however. I would be very interested to know if there are others, and if so, what were their experiences.Report

D
D
4 years ago

You might consider waiving the TOEFL/IELTS requirement for non-native speakers who have spent enough time studying in an English-speaking university. I took TOEFL, which cost me 250 dollars, for my application to CMU; no other universities require it. Even though there is no application fee, I essentially spent 250 for my application to CMU.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  D
4 years ago

This is a serious issue and we are working on it. Unlike the application fee, standards for international students are controlled by our university and changes happen much more slowly. There are two issues here that we are working to address.

First the standardized tests, TOEFL and GRE, are extremely expensive. This is not a CMU specific issue and it affects all students. It is especially serious for non-US students because they often have to travel (sometimes long distances) in order to take the standardized tests. We are looking into alternatives for these tests, like the DuoLingo language test developed by CMU researchers, which can be taken from home and is substantially cheaper. We have had less success finding alternatives to the GRE. But, I am eager to hear any thoughts anyone here has about this.

Second is the issue you point out, that CMU has a far more restrictive reading of “native English speaker” than many other universities. We are also working on this, but for various reasons, it might be difficult to get substantial change from our central administration. Hopefully, if we can fix the first issue the impact of this later issue will be reduced.Report