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Unnecessary fees work against Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Update: See a similar initiative at the University of Toronto Computer Science Department led by Alec Jacobson.

Traditionally, graduate schools in North American universities have charged a substantial application fee which varies by university and is often higher for international students. This may have been justified in pre-electronic days when processing applications would involve direct costs dealing with physical paperwork, as well as postage fees which would be higher for international destinations. Today, most universities use modern fully online systems but the application fees remain in place. It should be noted that most programs do offer various waivers including need-based waivers. However, in most cases, they have strict eligibility criteria that exclude many talented applicants who deserve the waivers, and they almost always only apply to domestic students.

A typical prospective student applying to several programs will wind up having to pay $1,000 or more just in application fees on top of what they would have to pay for standardized tests (GRE, TOEFL, and such) and the reporting of test scores which often incurs additional fees. This can take a toll on students from underprivileged backgrounds as well as international students from economically underprivileged countries. Needless to say, this creates discrimination based on economic standing and goes against Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The practice of charging application fees for graduate applications must stop! The collected fees are actually put to good use (for example to fund student visits) but that does not justify their existence and their discriminatory effects.

I studied at EPFL, and worked as a faculty at Imperial College London. Both have excellent Ph.D. programs that do not charge application fees. I'm sure there are many many other examples, and invite everyone to help me gather a stronger case against application fees by adding more examples to this spreadsheet.

I'm committed to work towards eliminating any discriminatory barriers in higher education and consistently raise such issues as unjust fees to my colleagues across the board. Fortunately, University of Michigan has demonstrated strong commitments to DEI and has taken steps in the right direction by providing generous fee waiver policies. Some graduate programs at U of M have already eliminated their application fees (for example, as of October 2020 the SEAS program, and the Chemistry program, the latter only for domestic applicants). However, there is still a long way to go and I'll work towards seeing a day when the fees are completely eliminated in all programs.

As a very small step, for the Fall 2020 applications season, from my personal income I will cover the application fees for a small number (~ 10) of applicants, anywhere in the world, applying to the graduate programs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who for any reason need assistance. To make a request:

I'd also love to hear from anyone who has stories to share on how application fees have created barriers for themselves or other students that they know. I have heard quite a few over the years and have been on the receiving end myself a long time ago when I was applying for grad schools. Hearing more and more first-hand experiences will help me think of better strategies to work towards resolving this issue and build a stronger case when discussing with colleagues.

I strongly encourage colleagues in my department and also other universities to join the effort, in any way possible, towards eliminating unnecessary fees and providing equal opportunities for talented students irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds.


(Disclaimer: This is my personal website, and any opinions expressed in this website are solely my own.)

Last Updated: November 2020

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