College Costs, Part II: Merit Aid and Best-Value Colleges

The current state of the economy has left many college-bound students and their families more concerned than ever about how they will pay for college. In a previous post on college costs, we discussed financial aid and scholarships. In this article, we examine college options for those who are seeking value, and what it takes to be considered for merit scholarships.

Merit Scholarships
Merit scholarships are awarded without regard to a family’s ability to pay for college and are based on distinction due to factors such as strong grades, strong standardized test scores or artistic or athletic promise. To be eligible, students typically need to be at the top range of the applicant pool, meaning they might choose to compromise on the selectivity of the college in order to get a financial award. Some colleges automatically consider students for scholarships, whereas others require the completion of a scholarship application. Not all colleges offer merit awards. Athletic scholarships are only offered to approximately 50% of athletes and only at the Division I and II levels.

Below is a sampling of merit awards received by clients of Educational Advocates (some students may have received additional grants in the form of need-based aid):

  • Allegheny College — $20,000 per year
  • Case Western University — $22,500 per year
  • Clark University — $18,000 per year
  • George Washington University — $10,000 per year
  • Indiana University — $9,000 per year
  • Ithaca College — $18,000 per year
  • Mount Holyoke College — $15,000 per year
  • Muhlenberg College — $10,500 per year
  • University of Rochester –$20,000 per year
  • Tulane University –$20,000 per year
  • Union College — $9,000 per year
  • Washington University in St. Louis –$20,000 per year

There are many other colleges that offer merit scholarships. Many state universities, such as University of Florida, and private colleges, such as Macalester College, offer scholarships for National Merit Scholars (students who scored high on the PSAT taken during their junior year).

Specialty Colleges with No Tuition
There are several selective colleges that offer a particular focus and charge no tuition at all (although there will be charges for books, fees, and room and board):

  • Cooper Union in New York City specializes in science, particularly engineering, and art/art studies.
  • Deep Springs College in California is an all-male college with an average of 26 students offering a two-year program in liberal arts, science and humanities. It offers an intense intellectual experience where students essentially run the school, hiring professors and working the ranch on which the college is located. After completing their work at Deep Spring, most students transfer to highly selective colleges.
  • Olin College of Engineering in the Boston suburb of Needham offers a $18,400 scholarship each year to all admitted students
  • The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia offers free tuition to the talented musicians who are admitted.

A less selective, low-cost option is the College of the Ozarks in Missouri (average GPA 3.5 and ACT: 24). Located in rural Missouri, this college offers free tuition in return for 15 hours of work on campus per week during the school year, plus two 40-hour weeks during school breaks.

Best Value Colleges
Below are a few best-value colleges (taking into consideration both financial and merit aid) according to Princeton Review:

  • New College of Florida, a selective public university in Sarasota with 800 students offering rigorous academics with evaluations rather than grades.
  • North Carolina State University in Raleigh, known for its excellent business and engineering.
  • Truman State University in Missouri, offering a highly regarded honors program.
  • Rice University, a highly selective college with strong music, engineering, architecture and liberal arts, as well as a consistently top-ranked baseball team.
  • Earlham College, a highly regarded liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana known for its international focus, small classes and interdisciplinary programs.
  • University of the South-Sewanee, a small private college in rural Tennessee with a nationally recognized English department (in part due to a bequest from playwright Tennessee Williams) and strong sciences.

Geographic Cost Savings
Many private and public colleges located in the Southeast and Southwest have a lower cost of attendance than colleges in the Northeast. The cost savings can be significant.

Public versus Private
When considering and comparing private and public schools, it is important for students to abandon some commonly held misconceptions. Students should never assume a private education is better than a public education nor should they assume that private colleges are always more expensive than state schools. Public universities offer very good value, but out-of-state tuition in some states rivals that of the most expensive private colleges. Also, strong students might find that they get more grant money from a private college than a public. However, our nation’s public universities offer some of the best education in the world, and attending an in-state public college can save students and families thousands in tuition.

Ultimately, when researching private and public colleges, the important factor is to include cost and value among the criteria for choosing a college along with other factors such as campus culture, academic offerings, extracurricular activities, quality of advising, and location.

College is expensive; however, with research it is possible to find more affordable options. Educational Advocates is available to help families factor cost considerations into the college search process.

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