All grad school applications must be accompanied by an application fee, currently somewhere in the $50-100 (CDN) range. I will soon have to pay these fees, and after asking around about the origin of them, I am of the opinion that they are bullshit and racist; another example of university administrators looking to bleed more money out of students because they can, and no one will fight it. It seems that many disagree with me, so I would like to solicit the opinions of slashdotters; am I totally off base on this?
First, what I have been told is the reason for these application fees: pay the person reviewing your application for their time. Going through an application is a long and complicated process, so you can't ask people to volunteer their time to do it. You can't just add the cost of reading the application to each students' tuition, as you could read any number of applications for each student that eventually accepts a position; plus, increasing tuition is an extremely unpopular and, in some places (those with tuition freezes) impossible. Further, when you include a cost to the process, you force the students to think very carefully about their application, resulting in better quality applications, meaning you don't have to spend exorbitant amounts of time - at the school's expense - weeding through hordes of bad applications to find the few good ones. A quote from The Princeton Review: "Many universities, with admissions committees swamped by record numbers of applications, have raised their fees in order to prevent less-motivated applicants from applying and reduce the number of incoming applications."
My rebuttal. Do I think the time people put into going through applications should be volunteered? Of course not, it's still work, so the university should pay for the time it takes to look over the applications. I can't think of any other institution that forces the applicant to pay to be considered for a position; does the applicant really have so much more to gain out of the deal? I would argue that universities have more to gain when students publish groundbreaking research, whereas the probability of that student producing said research at one university compared to another is close to the same (the difference would likely be a particular professor - probably why you don't have to pay to apply for faculty positions). If the student is so transparently paying the person reviewing their application, does this mean I can just include extra money to have my application seen more favourably? Can I write a shorter application with fewer references to lower the fee? I'm not making the insinuation that application fees are just bribes, I simply say this to refute the idea that you are paying an individual for their time.
I hypothesize that these fees are rooted in racism. It surprised me when I first heard that grad schools get hordes of bad applications; it seems that grad school is an endeavour that few are that interested in, and those that are interested wouldn't be satisfied handing in a sub-par application. So where do these applications come from? China and India. Getting a student visa is far easier than a work visa, and grad schools in many countries (from what I know, India especially) do not have good reputations compared to those in North America and parts of Europe. Combine the large population of recent graduates in China and India that would like to get out of their respective countries (something that more educated people would be more likely to do) with their varying degrees of English proficiency, and you end up with an influx of grad school applications from China and India, many of which are considered "bad". How do you stop this? You can't just place language requirements, as that still requires time to investigate. You can't refuse international students, that's illegal in public universities, and bad press for private universities. So what do you do? Require an application fee. You stop the flow of applications from Chinese and Indian students who are applying everywhere hoping to get accepted anywhere, and you still get the good applications from overseas - those who are from well educated families that are more likely to have a few hundred dollars Canadian available.
Again, my opinion, but I think it's counterproductive. Sure, this process may ease the burden by not having to wade through scores of applications written by non-native English speakers and lazy students, but you're also limiting the choice for intelligent students that may not be able to come up with the hundreds or thousands of dollars it could cost to apply to all of the schools they're interested in, in all the fields they're interested in. It forces students to limit themselves to schools that they determine are sufficient yet realistic (as shooting too high is just throwing away money), and it forces students to choose their best one or two proposals to submit, when the important discovery might have actually been found working on the third proposal. It pushes people that may have been able to produce valuable scientific research into industry, where their intelligence may be squandered working in closed, proprietary environments that don't promote learning outside the job description.