No Application Fee for International Students? Your Institution May Be Losing Out on Enrollments

International student mobility is at an all-time high. Admissions offices around the world are processing unprecedented volumes of applications from international students, often at a considerable expense. Yet many institutions—particularly in the UK and Australia—are loath to consider one proven means of filtering out weak and unserious applicants: application fees.

It’s a valid concern. Sky-high application volumes are often seen as the price paid for robust enrollment numbers. But is this assumption accurate? At ApplyBoard, we’ve helped more than 600,000 international students on their study abroad journey, and we’ve collected application fee data on every one of those applications. Read on to see what this data shows about the relationship between application fees, enrollment rate, and enrollment volumes.1

Key Insights at a Glance

  • Programs without application fees have the lowest application-to-enrollment conversion rate on the ApplyBoard platform.
  • Higher application fees result in higher enrollment rates.
  • No fees lead to increased application volume, but not an enrollment volume advantage compared to programs with fees.

Application Fees and Enrollment Rates

For our analysis, we assigned the 140,000+ programs on the ApplyBoard platform to four application fee tiers: $0, $1-50, $51-100, and over $100.2 Comparing the application-to-enrollment conversion rates for each tier, we found that higher application fees result in higher enrollment rates. The relationship was clear and consistent: each fee tier had a higher enrollment rate than the preceding tier.

The starkest difference in enrollment rate between subsequent tiers was between programs with free applications and programs with a $1-50 application fee. Programs costing up to $50 to apply were twice as effective at converting applications into enrollments as programs without an application fee.

It’s not surprising that enrollment rates fall in cases where applying is free. Paying to submit an application naturally increases the value that a typical student places on that application; they’re likely to pay more attention to the finer details and submit a higher-quality application, thereby increasing their chances of acceptance. And with no cost to apply, students—many of them weaker—are incentivized to send out many applications, even if they’re not particularly motivated to attend a particular institution.

Does Additional Application Volume Result in Increased Enrollment Volume?

Less clear is whether an increase in enrollment volume makes up for the lower enrollment rate. The difference in application volumes across fee tiers is considerable. On the ApplyBoard platform, more students have applied to programs with no application fee than all programs with fees combined. Also, more than twice the number of students applied to programs without an application fee than to programs with a fee between $51 and $100.

Yet despite this application volume advantage, programs offering free applications received many fewer enrollments than programs with an application fee. In fact, since 2015, we’ve seen 63% more applications for programs without application fees but 44% fewer enrollments.
The confirmed enrollment volume for programs with an application fee between  and 0 exceeded the volume or programs with free applications.

Enrollment Rates by Destination Market

In Canada, just under half of ApplyBoard’s students applied to programs without an application fee. Programs with a fee over $100 converted applicants into confirmed enrollments at more than twice the rate as programs with no application fee. And although programs with free applications received nearly 40% more applicants than programs with a fee between $50 and $100, they had 30% fewer enrollments.

In the US, more than three quarters of our students applied to programs without an application fee. Programs with a free application received more than four times the number of applicants than programs with a fee between $1 and $50, but only twice as many confirmed enrollments.

Finally, in both the UK and Australia, nearly 100% of our students applied to programs that did not have an application fee. Unsurprisingly, these two destination markets have a weaker overall enrollment rate than their North American counterparts.

The Bottom Line

Programs without an application fee see significantly higher application volumes but significantly lower enrollment rates. In fact, enrollment rates are so much lower that programs without an application fee do not enjoy an enrollment volume advantage over programs with a fee. Put another way, by allowing students to apply for free, institutions are actually costing themselves enrollments.

This is a surprising finding that cuts against conventional wisdom. How do we explain it? The answer may lie in application processing time. Previous ApplyBoard research found that delayed letters of acceptance (LOAs) can reduce enrollment rates by nearly 50%. As admissions teams struggle to process large volumes of applications coming in for programs without application fees, they may encounter delays getting back to the students most interested in attending their institution. Tired of waiting, those students may in turn accept an offer from an institution that gets back to them more quickly.

With this in mind, institutions with programs that lack application fees might do well to consider introducing even a nominal fee to weed out weak or unserious applications. Of course, the top of the application funnel looks different for each institution. Whether it’s appropriate to charge an application fee depends on the strategic goals of an institution—there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For institutions looking to grow in a specific market, for example, waiving application fees for students from that market can be a useful tool to generate interest. But close attention should be paid to processing times to ensure they don’t creep up as a result.

Looking for help selecting the optimal application fee for your programs? Reach out to the ApplyBoard Partner Relations team.


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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CMO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government, third-party, and ApplyBoard internal data, to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 300,000 students around the world.



1. The data ranges from our inception in 2015 to April 2023.

2. Fee tiers are expressed in the currency of the destination: CAD for Canada, USD for the United States, etc.


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