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In the high competition of admission in top universities, it is common that every applicant must send lots of applications to different universities/programs to get approval for a PhD program.

Some universities charge an application fee. Why? This hinders many potential applicants.

For a research position (research associate, postdoc, etc.), the job advertisement system encourage as many as possible applicants to send applications. This gives more flexibility to select the best candidate.

Why do universities stop potential applicants for PhD applications with an application fee?

If the application fee is US$100, charging US$10,000 for 100 applicants is nothing for a university, but sending 10 applications ($1,000) is something for a student (particularly if coming from developing countries).

WHY do Western universities charge a small application fee, which is probably one month salary of a candidate from developing countries?

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    sending 10 applications ($1,000) is something for a student (particularly if coming from developing countries), I understand the pain. I was in this same situation 4 decades ago. My monthly salary was USD$200. I had to spend much more than that just for applications. The lesson I learned is: send applications to only the schools I know I would go to and I had a reasonable chance to be accepted. – scaaahu Apr 12 '15 at 12:14
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    @scaaahu Which is exactly the response they're looking for with the fee. – cpast Apr 12 '15 at 16:30
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    Indeed. I was in this position two decades ago, when considering applying to universities in the US, all of which charged application fees (all of the ones that I checked out, that is). This is one of the main reasons I set my sights on the UK, and ultimately got my PhD there. – Shane O Rourke Apr 12 '15 at 16:30
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    Some department/universities will waive application fees for applicants in developing countries. Unfortunately, mine is not one of them. – JeffE Apr 12 '15 at 17:28
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    @JeffE In the old (pre-web) days, even when a university refused to waive the application fee, a department could look at the applications for which no fee had yet been paid, could decide which of those students to admit, and inform the students of the decision. If the decision was positive, the student still had to pay the fee, but if the decision was negative,the student wouldn't waste a fee on a rejection. I fear (but don't actually know) that nowadays applications reach the department only via the central administration, so this idea no longer works. – Andreas Blass Apr 12 '15 at 22:16
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A system where everyone applies everywhere is not in the interest of any of the participants. Handling the applications requires significant effort on both sides and the applications are less meaningful. In particular, plenty of people will receive multiple offers inevitably turning all but one down. That requires waiting lists etc. In the end, some positions will even go unfilled.

In countries with a centrally-run system (for undergrad places: eg UK or Germany), this can be avoided on the central level. If there is no such system, then application fees are a means for the universities to encourage the applicants to send out only a small number of good applications.

That this disproportionally affects students from poorer backgrounds is an unfortunate side effect while the extra income is fortunate for the university.

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    I like this answer because it's in a neutral position, Neutral in the sense that the OP is speaking for both applicants side and university side. – scaaahu Apr 12 '15 at 11:46
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    There has not been a central system in Germany for some time, for most curses of studies. (*affects, too.) – Raphael Apr 12 '15 at 16:21
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    There is no central application system for PhDs in the UK, either. – Jack Aidley Apr 12 '15 at 20:59
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft perhaps it's because they know they can't check. A rule without enforcement is useless and counterproductive, penalizing the honest. – Alexander Apr 13 '15 at 7:45
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    @Alexander: What a beautiful phrasing; I want to like that a bunch of times and also engrave it in stone. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 29 '15 at 0:42
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The imposition of an application fee serves two purposes:

  1. It helps offset some of the costs of graduate admissions, which otherwise has no revenue at universities that (effectively) charge no graduate tuition. My university must receive at least 10,000 applications a year for its 400 doctoral slots across the disciplines. That's about $1 million in revenue, which is not trivial.

  2. More importantly, the cost imposes a burden (opportunity cost) on applicants that helps weed out the less serious and ensures that people are not applying to every program under the sun without regard to fit or suitability.

Comments:

  1. Most universities have an admission fee waiver program which you should explore. At least at my university, the admissions committee/faculty don't see which students applied for and received waivers, so there's no downside to applying if you qualify.

  2. When we do job searches, we often wish there was a higher opportunity cost so that applicants wouldn't apply so far outside of their fields for positions they have no chance of getting into. However, the general trend has been to actual reduce the opportunity cost by getting rid of the requirement to send letters at the same time of the application and to move to electronic applications.

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    Re your last point, requiring letters of recommendation to be sent at the same time as the application puts the opportunity cost on the writers of those letters. It's much easier to ask for a letter than write one. – David Richerby Apr 12 '15 at 14:37
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    @david Presumably, the thinking would be that advisors would put pressure on advisees to not apply to 200 schools if they had to write 200 letters. However, in this day of electronic portfolio systems, there is effectively zilch direct or indirect opportunity cost, this we've had to abandon this system. – RoboKaren Apr 12 '15 at 16:03
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The PhD admissions process is a hugely time consuming process. Depending on the department, the vast majority of applications are reviewed by multiple members of the faculty. In the case of 4 people reviewing each application at 15 minutes each, that is a person hour of time application. As the list gets shortened, often the number of people involved increases. So while in the final stages you might only be considering 10% of the applications, they are being reviewed by 40 faculty members, hence even 15 minutes spent discussing each applicant and funding for them, would still contribute another be a person hour per application. While I have never tracked it, each application probably requires a couple of faculty per hours to process.

You claim that $10,000 is small change to a department is wrong. Assuming a 10% acceptance rate, if that money went directly to graduate students, either as an increase stipend or travel and research funds, that is $1000 per graduate student. That is a huge increase.

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    if that money went directly to graduate students — Yeah, but it doesn't. – JeffE Apr 12 '15 at 17:29
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    even 15 minutes spent discussing each applicant and funding for them, would still contribute another be a person hour per application — Yeah, but that's already part of our job, for which we are already paid. – JeffE Apr 12 '15 at 17:30
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    @JeffE: How do you know? It goes into a big pot of money out of which it may come back in the form of graduate fellowships. It's true that the application fees are not specifically earmarked, but they go into an account for which there are likely very few restrictions on use -- exactly what you want to have if you're considering adding an additional fellowship or TA line. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 12 '15 at 17:31
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    @WolfgangBangerth How do you know? — I'm an associate department head. — they go into an account for which there are likely very few restrictions on use — But that's exactly the opposite of "go directly to graduate students"! – JeffE Apr 12 '15 at 17:34
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    @PeteL.Clark, you are right, I missed the multiple years. My point is that I disagree with the OPs assertion that the $1000 per incoming student is nothing to a department/university. Tracking any single pot of money is obviously hard, but in my experience, if the university removed those fees, there would be a cut to departmental budgets. That lost money would have to be made up someplace. I will try editing in a bit to see if I can make this clearer. – StrongBad Apr 13 '15 at 8:49

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