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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 Zolllman

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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