To Improve Educational Access in NYC, Waive Application Fees

March 25, 2014

With his unwavering focus on universal pre-k in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio may well be vying for the title of “educational access” mayor. Yet for all his emphasis on early childhood issues, the mayor remains remarkably silent about a simple act that would dramatically increase higher education access in the city: Increasing the number of application fee waivers available for students to apply to the City University of New York (CUNY).

CUNY describes itself as the “nation's leading urban public university.” In theory, CUNY should be the city’s crown jewel when it comes to educational access: 17 separate colleges offering everything from professional certificates to PhDs at tuition costs low enough that the school is able to boast that the majority of its students do not need student loans.

But CUNY’s behavior regarding application fee waivers for low-income students goes against the grain of widespread educational access and affordability.

But unlike most large universities, CUNY lacks a policy on waiving application fees for financial reasons. The University of California, for example, waives application fees for up to four campuses for any student demonstrating financial need. 

Each year 6,600 low-income students who would otherwise apply to CUNY do not because they cannot afford the application fee.

In lieu of a policy, CUNY gives New York City public high schools a limited number of waivers to distribute among students on a first-come, first-served basis. Most high schools use up their allotted waivers very quickly and are only able to distribute them to a fraction of the students who need the financial help. Outside organizations like the College Board also provide college application fee waivers, but CUNY does not accept them.

CUNY’s application fee is $65. This might not seem like a high amount, but it can constitute a major financial barrier for families living near poverty. The cost of applying to college is enough of an access issue that the College Board provides college application fee waivers for students suffering financial hardship. In fact, the College Board recently increased the number of waivers it offers students from two to four.

The New York City Department of Education estimates that CUNY’s practice affects about 6,600 students a year. That means each year 6,600 low-income students who would otherwise apply to CUNY do not because they cannot afford it. 

Mayor de Blasio has a real opportunity to change that.

What can de Blasio do?  Any of three things:  First, put pressure on CUNY to create a real policy surrounding application fee waivers for low-income students. Second, put pressure on CUNY to at least accept the waivers already being given out by the College Board. Third, have the city itself step up and fund more need-based application fee waivers.

In a city where the average low-income student is lucky to receive 8 hours total of college and career counseling in their entire 4-year high school career, and where the majority of high school guidance counselors face caseloads of 100 to 300 students, removing a $65 obstacle to accessing the city’s public university system seems like an obvious and imperative choice.  If he truly wants to be known as the “educational access” mayor, de Blasio should make this a priority.

Jen W
Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization, and the co-founder of First to Finish College, a joint project of Demos and SparkAction. She is a first-generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 



This blog post originally appeared on the Demos PolicyShop blog. It is reprinted here with permission. 
Jennifer Wheary





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