College Cost: Seeking Merit Scholarships

The current state of the economy has left many college-bound students and their families more concerned about how they will pay for college. The good news is that, in addition to need-based aid (determined by family income and assets), our clients collectively received over $1.6 million in merit scholarships this year for college or graduate school.  In a previous article, we discussed developing a college list with financial considerations in mind. Here we further explain merit scholarships.

Merit Scholarships

college campus

Colleges award merit aid to students based on academic or special achievements.

Merit scholarships are awarded without regard to a family’s ability to pay and are based on distinction due to factors such as strong grades and standardized test scores, artistic or athletic promise, or outstanding social justice and service involvement. (Not all colleges offer merit scholarships but instead award grants based solely on need). To be considered, for academic awards, students need to be at the very top range of a college’s applicant pool. In addition, students sometimes must maintain a specific GPA while in college to keep the award for all four years. Art and music scholarships often require a portfolio or audition, and social justice/service awards usually require an essay that outlines involvements.

Some colleges automatically consider all applicants for scholarships, whereas others require the completion of a scholarship application. 

Sources of Merit Scholarships

The best sources of merit scholarships are the colleges. While there are private scholarships that students may apply for in their communities and identify through online searches, they require an intensive time commitment and typically offer modest amounts. Students who seek an affordable education can use search engines on sites such as CollegeData to discover colleges that may offer merit aid. Students can also google the name of a college of interest with the phrase “merit scholarships.”

Below is a small sampling of merit awards received by clients of Educational Advocates College Consulting this year: 

  • Goucher College — $30,000 per year
  • The College of Wooster–$32,000 per year
  • Case Western University–$20,000 per year 
  • Columbia College Chicago–$14,000 per year
  • Connecticut College–$20,000 per year
  • Denison University–$23,000
  • Fordham University–$20,000 per year
  • Georgetown Law School–$25,000 per year
  • Ithaca College–$14,000 per year
  • Manhattanville College–$17,000 per year
  • Northeastern University–$24,000 per year
  • St. Lawrence University–$36,000 per year
  • University of Vermont–$20,000 per year
  • Union College — $15,000 per year
  • Wheaton College–$32,000 per year
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute–$17,000 per year

In previous years, our clients have also received merit awards at colleges such as Tulane University, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Rochester. 

Free and Low-Cost Specialty Colleges 

There are several colleges that offer a particular focus and charge no tuition. 

  • Deep Springs College in California enrolls 26 students in  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. The college fully covers tuition, room and board with students responsible for books, travel and incidentals.
  • The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia offers free tuition to the talented musicians, both undergraduate and graduate, who are admitted regardless of need.
  • A less selective, low-cost option is the College of the Ozarks in Missouri (minimum GPA 3.0 and ACT: 20 or SAT: 1030). This Christian liberal arts 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.

Public versus Private

college building

Be sure to compare public versus private colleges and know your options.

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 and they rarely offer need-based aid to out-of-state applicants. 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. 

Some out-of-state publics offer generous merit scholarships.  The University of Virginia offers the Jefferson Scholarship for which top out-of-state students may compete. State universities, such as University of Alabama, offer very generous awards for National Merit finalists and semifinalists (students who scored high on the PSAT taken during their junior year). A few private colleges, such as Macalester College, offer modest National Merit scholarships of about $2000 per year. 

Ultimately, when researching private and public colleges, it is important 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 College Consulting is available to help families consider cost and develop college lists where students are more apt to receive merit scholarships.

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