Family income matters for ‘merit’ awards at the University of Rochester

by Grace

Are a family’s financial circumstances considered when the University of Rochester awards merit scholarships?  Let’s look at the facts.

From the University of Rochester website:

Merit-based scholarships range in amount from $2,000 per year to full-tuition. They are awarded to students who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and potential, regardless of financial circumstances.

We distribute merit-based aid regardless of a family’s demonstrated financial need.

But here’s what Jonathan Burdick, Rochester Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, writes in a candid blog post about “12 steps that mattered for earning merit scholarships”.

We had a “progressive tax” in our merit. On average, each four dollars less in family income increased merit awards one cent. Not much impact per student, but noticeable overall.

According to this, a family’s “financial circumstances” are a factor in the distribution of so-called merit awards.  I see a contradiction, even if unintended.  Is this curious correlation a simple coincidence?  What should families believe?

Here’s what Daniel de Vise of the Washington Post writes.

“Need-based” aid is fairly easy to predict; many colleges spell out their formulas so plainly that a student can calculate a likely aid award based on her or his household income. “Merit” aid is comparatively opaque, meted out in rough proportion to the applicant’s academic credentials.

Opaque, indeed.  In reviewing college merit aid policies I have seen many instances of “hybrid” aid, where schools make it clear that both financial need and merit are considered.   However, I have not been alone in wondering if some colleges also take financial need into account when dispensing what they label as merit aid while never disclosing this significant fact to families.  It seems that the University of Rochester may have given us an example of this covert and confusing practice.

7 Responses to “Family income matters for ‘merit’ awards at the University of Rochester”

  1. I am on my university committee for a women in science scholarship program. I recently was at a meeting where we chose 2 recipients. This is a completely merit based scholarship, and we did not take financial need into account at all – in fact, we did not have that data. We did take into account the major – we leaned towards women who were majoring in computer science rather than bio, since our bio program is already majority female while CS only has about 5% women.

    I actually see a more of a problem with merit scholarships when it comes to POOR recipients. We have many students who qualify for large amounts of aid because their family incomes are so low. For many students, a merit scholarship merely replaces some other kind of grant. We wanted our women in science grant to be accompanied by significant mentoring and activities that would make the women feel special and rewarded. But the students just see the scholarship as part of their financial aid – there is no “special” factor to it.


  2. Thank you for this insight into the inner workings of the process!

    Poor students, already receiving need-based funds, are sometimes not interested in doing any extra work to apply for merit scholarships because it might not mean any extra money for them. As you say, it simply replaces their other aid. However, it is usually set up so that merit aid preferentially replaces loans and work study before grants. So they SHOULD be interested in these scholarships.


  3. Hmm, instead of “poor students” in my previous comment, I probably should have written “students who qualify for need-based aid”.

    The fact that lower income students are less likely to apply (and possibly less likely to qualify academically) for merit scholarships makes the correlation of lower income with more merit money seem even less coincidental.

    Here’s my thinking on how one way a lower family income increases your chances of receiving merit scholarship money. Although the scholarship committee may not have the income information (but sometimes they may have the FAFSA/PROFILE data), they can deduce the relative income levels of applicants by other information such as activities, work experience, etc. When evaluating merit, the committee could take into account the extra effort they believe a lower income student needed to reach a certain level of achievement and give them extra points for that. This could be done subconsciously or consciously.


  4. Our students tend mainly to be poor to lower middle class, so it is hard to deduce income from activities. There is a certain sameness to the students – mainly products of Catholic schools or public schools, most of them work part time jobs, and they don’t have the huge amounts of extracurricular activities that you would see for students who go to Ivies.


  5. Interesting. Actually, it’s possible the simple lack of activities plus the part time jobs are clues to family income.


  6. Merci pour ce bluffant article sur referencer un site.
    Ton Blog Family income matters for merit awards at the University of Rochester |
    Cost of College est une superbe source d’infos .



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