How High School Students Can Maximize Merit-Based College Financial Aid
One of the more mysterious types of financial aid is merit aid, which is scholarship money that colleges provide to incoming students based on their grades, test scores, artistic skill, athletic ability or other achievements.
Unlike need-based financial aid, the amount of merit aid you receive is not related to your or your parents’ financial need. A school that is eager for you to enroll there will offer you merit aid to coax you to attend. Unlike student loans, merit aid money does not need to be repaid. It may be awarded for just one academic year or annually, and it may also come with requirements to maintain it, like meeting a certain grade point average (GPA).
It can be difficult to predict whether you’ll receive merit aid from a particular college, since not every school publicizes its approach to merit scholarship distribution. Here’s what you should know about merit aid and how to put yourself in the best position possible to get it.
Understand How Merit-based Financial Aid Works
Since merit aid isn’t based on financial need—like Pell Grants, federal subsidized student loans and work-study are—it’s up to the institution to decide who qualifies. Typically, students who are considered high achievers compared to the school’s overall population are good candidates for merit aid.
Boston University tells applicants that students in the top 5% of their graduating high school class are most likely to receive merit scholarships. American University in Washington, D.C. says students with academic profiles in the top 10% to 15% of the school’s admitted first-year class most frequently receive merit aid.
Some school-based merit scholarships require a separate application, but many colleges consider all students who apply for admission as potential merit aid recipients. Check the school’s financial aid website for insight into their merit aid evaluation process, including any extra application materials you may need to complete.
There are some aspects of merit aid distribution that students can’t control. Admissions officers at some schools, for instance, may look at a student’s fit for the college and the likelihood they’ll stay enrolled for the full length of their academic program. If the college is having trouble enrolling students in a certain program, it may offer more merit aid to students interested in that major. But those circumstances can change from year to year and from school to school.
Apply to the Right Schools
In general, to have the best chance at receiving merit aid, apply to schools that will consider you a top applicant based on your academic, athletic or artistic performance, or where you’ll bring traits and experiences that the college wants its freshman class to have.
You can view the average standardized test scores among incoming students in the “Test Scores & Acceptance” section of the school’s online College Scorecard, available from the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges typically publicize their average high school GPA and high school ranking on their admissions websites.
There’s no central place you can go to find out how much merit aid each school offers. But the Common Data Set, which publicizes certain college admissions and financial aid data, gives students the opportunity to explore which schools give more aid than their counterparts.
Search “Common Data Set” in a college’s website search bar or along with the school’s name in a search engine. In the document that comes up, look for the sections entitled “Number of Enrolled Students Awarded Aid” and “Number of Enrolled Students Awarded Non-need-based Scholarships and Grants.” The more students who received non-need-based aid—merit aid, in other words—the more likely it is you’ll also qualify if you’re eligible.
In 2019-20, for example, New York University awarded merit aid to 270 full-time first-year students with no financial need (out of a total of 6,160 full-time first-year students). The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, awarded merit aid to 1,783 full-time first-year students with no financial need, out of a total of 6,632 full-time first-years.
Know When to Negotiate For More Merit Aid
Colleges that are competing for the same students may be willing to increase their merit aid offers. Say your heart is set on a school that gave you a $10,000 annual merit scholarship in your financial aid award letter in recognition of your strong grades. But a competitor school—one that attracts students with similar test scores and grades, and that has about the same reputation and level of admissions selectivity—gave you $20,000.
Contact the admissions office of the first school and politely let them know about the other college’s offer, requesting that the school consider whether it can provide more scholarship money. This is a different process from a financial aid appeal, which typically requires evidence of a change in financial circumstances that results in more need-based financial aid. That type of appeal will be evaluated by the financial aid office, not the admissions office.
Don’t Forget About the FAFSA
Due to ever-increasing tuition prices and the somewhat indecipherable nature of merit aid, students may not be able to count on institutional scholarships to make college affordable. That means that no matter your family’s income, it’s crucial to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, each year to qualify for need-based aid and low-interest federal student loans.
Your financial need is determined based on the school’s cost of attendance, and pricier colleges may end up leading to a higher determination of financial need than you’d expect. That could mean you qualify for certain grants; subsidized federal student loans, which charge less interest than other loan types; and on-campus work-study jobs.
Skipping the FAFSA means forfeiting your chance at these financial aid options. Fill out the form as soon as it’s available on Oct. 1 of each year to get access to the most aid possible.
Several selective colleges—those in the Ivy League, for instance—don’t award merit aid at all. Instead, they distribute financial aid based only on a student’s financial need. Take note of whether a school publicizes the fact that it meets all students’ full financial need, particularly if it promises a no-loan financial aid package.
Schools that meet the full need will cover the entire gap between the cost of attendance and the amount your family can contribute, based on the results of the FAFSA, with need-based financial aid. Instead of offering generous merit aid, these schools ensure that all students can afford to attend no matter their financial circumstances.