Psst – one of Duke’s so-called merit scholarships is actually need-based

by Grace

Be wary of merit scholarships that take financial need into account.

THE DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOLARS award is listed as a merit scholarship, but it is actually based on financial need.

In one section of their website, it is described as completely merit-based.

Merit Scholarships
Duke University also offers a limited number of merit scholarships. All applicants for admission are automatically considered for any available merit scholarship; specific applications are not required, and are not available. Our merit scholarship programs do not require that the winner demonstrate need; merit scholarships are based on the student’s academic and personal profile.

But if you read further on the University Scholars website, you see a contradiction.

As University Scholars are selected in part on the basis of financial need, it is imperative to file any required financial aid forms as early as possible, preferably by mid-February.
 …

THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER MERIT SCHOLARSHIPS take financial need into account in a more subtle way.

From the University of Rochester website:

Merit-based scholarships … 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.

However, in candid blog post Jonathan Burdick, Rochester Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, wrote about the curious correlation between lower income and increased merit award amount.

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.

Hmm, the lower your income the more merit money you receive.  In defending the correlation, Burdick explains that financial need is incorporated in a camouflaged way.

… needier students were on average more likely to have earned larger merit awards from the committee review process. I expect this result reflects the sympathy most reviewers might have for students whose essays and letters of recommendation describe tougher life circumstances. You don’t have to see a tax return to admire someone who has both achieved in school and comes from a single-parent home, or will be the first in the family to attend college, etc.

This was exactly my thinking, that the reviewers sometimes give extra “points” to students from families with lower incomes, euphemistically described as tougher life circumstances. Parents must decipher this information on their own, since colleges may claim that financial circumstances are not a factor in deciding merit awards.


Be forewarned.  Sometimes even when colleges insist that a scholarship is awarded solely on merit, family income does matter.


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