To boost enrollment, CUNY waives application fee for NYC high school seniors

A sign for a CUNY campus with NYC silver subway trains running above ground over it.
CUNY is temporarily waiving its application fee for all New York City high school seniors. (Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY)

In an effort to encourage more students to apply to college, CUNY has waived the application fee for all New York City public high school seniors until April 15. 

Students typically apply to college in the fall of their senior years. CUNY distributes a number of fee waiver codes to New York City public high schools, which school officials give to students, said Giulia Prestia, a spokesperson for CUNY. Just over 46,000 students used those codes between last spring and fall. 

But the blanket waiver announced this week would benefit students who still haven’t decided whether to apply to college. 

“We are trying to motivate seniors who may still be undecided about applying to college to take this important step toward their future at no cost,” said CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez in a statement. “We are also removing a financial roadblock that has deterred many students from applying.” 

The move could also boost enrollment at CUNY’s 23 undergraduate schools and programs as college enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels. Enrollment at CUNY dropped by roughly 10% in the fall of 2022 compared with 2021, helping to fuel a hiring freeze. Nationally, college enrollment has dipped during the public health crisis, but has started to stabilize, with just a 0.6% drop in fall undergraduate enrollment in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which collects enrollment data. 

Across New York, undergraduate college enrollment — which was already dropping pre-pandemic — was down by 2% compared with 2021, according to the Clearinghouse. 

The fee waiver comes as the cost of attending these schools could go up. Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed tuition hikes at both CUNY and SUNY campuses, a move that is supported by both systems’ chancellors. At CUNY, in-state undergraduate students pay $3,465 per semester at four year colleges. At community colleges, New York City residents pay $2,400 per semester. At SUNY, in-state residents were expected this school year to pay $7,070 for tuition at four-year colleges and $5,130 at community colleges.

Students can apply for state tuition assistance for up to $5,665 a year. 

Some believe fee waivers can make a difference by removing one barrier to the college application process. Juanmy Moscoso, who graduated from a Brooklyn high school in 2021, said he used a school-issued CUNY application fee waiver. It saved him money, but it also saved him time in figuring out how he would pay the fee. 

“I think it would have discouraged me a little, just because having to pay to get an education is something that is discouraging,” said Moscoso, who is now a sophomore at Brooklyn College. 

However, the initiative is coming too late in the school year, said Carrie McCormack, a college and career counselor at East Bronx Academy for the Future. Nearly all of her school’s 76 seniors have already applied to college, using up the roughly 50 fee waiver codes the school received.

A blanket fee waiver may have been more beneficial in the fall when most students apply to school, McCormack said. Students who decide to apply this late in the process probably won’t get a spot at CUNY’s more high-profile schools, such as Hunter or City College, she said. 

A more effective program might be to waive fees for students who previously applied to CUNY, but decided not to enroll, she said. For example, only 16 of her students who applied to college last year actually enrolled, McCormack said. 

In general, McCormack has found a waning interest in college among her students since the pandemic. For example, she knows a handful of students who she would have expected to pursue college, but are more interested in various trade schools, she said. 

“Our higher level, so to speak, students — the ones you think, ‘Oh, you’re definitely going to college,’ are not so excited about it,” she said.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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