During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Salt Lake Community college dropped its application fee.
The college’s primary reasoning for the change was to increase enrollment, according to Admissions Director Kate Gildea-Broderick. A dramatic decline in students applying to the college – 7% from 2019 to 2020 – can be seen in the Utah System of Higher Education’s institutional data resources. Education, it seemed, simply no longer became a top priority for many students.
“A lot of our students were really heavily impacted by the pandemic,” said Gildea-Broderick. “Money wasn’t as lush and flush as it [was] in other times.”
A 2021 investigation led by Lara Southard, assistant director of data science and research at the time, found that the application fee affected enrollment by approximately 19%. The study’s results, alongside the concurrent pandemic, drove SLCC’s decision to eliminate the fee.
However, its removal exposed the college to fraud as bots infiltrated the system in an effort to steal aid money, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. SLCC did not lose any funds, but even so, it reinstated the application fee last year at a reduced rate of $20 from the previous $40 to combat future fraudulent activity.
Considering the college’s reversal of the application fee, Gildea-Broderick emphasized current options to waive it.
“If the $20 application fee is truly the barrier, I would work with [students] to remove that barrier,” she said. “I would never want that to be the reason that kept students from pursuing higher education.”
Gildea-Broderick said her department resolves to look at all barriers in the admission process, believing each student’s admission process should be “accessible beyond the application” and looked at on a case-by-case basis.
While the admissions department is still investigating the counterfeit applications and will not comment on how SLCC was able to detect the false accounts, Rod Buhler, who teaches computer science, said the removal of the application fee was “probably 100% responsible” for the bots as the fee acted as a barrier to embezzlement.
Because SLCC is an open access college, it is more susceptible to fraud, Buhler explained. The bots used real people’s data, and so Buhler advises students to help on their end by better safeguarding their information.
He recommends reducing debit card use, not sharing sensitive information, and questioning organizations who call or email unprompted. Buhler also advises the use of stronger passwords and two-factor authentication.