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All excellent points. My understanding is that fee waivers are granted more or less automatically for any plausible candidate, and no school would ever take anyone to collections over a denied fee waiver request (they just wouldn't process the application until the fee is paid), but as you point out, low-income / first-generation-college applicants are unlikely to know this stuff. There are also programs like QuestBridge which attempt to streamline the process of applying to multiple schools, fee waivers, etc., but again a lot of students don't know about them.

How automatic is automatic?

My brother went to Harvard, partly because their financial aid offer was best, and I recall my father cursing the required forms. He's a lawyer, so ordinary legalese doesn't phase him, but he found those troublesome. Now I imagine a family without a JD in it, or even without a BA in it, trying to fill them out...

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