Merit aid is on the rise, with colleges looking for a boost to their prestige from students with strong grades and test scores.
While there are no national statistics post-recession, an Education Department study released last fall showed that the percentage of students receiving merit aid grew so rapidly from 1995 to 2008 that it rivaled the number of students receiving need-based aid.
Recent College Board data from more than 600 nonprofit colleges and universities show that some are giving fewer students more money or stretching their dollars by handing smaller amounts to more students. But others are expanding the number of recipients as well as the amount of their awards.
“Merit aid is one of the few bright lights in college financing now,” says Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, a college counselor in Lancaster, Pa. … She advises putting financials in the forefront, sprinkling schools that offer generous merit aid on your college wish list. “Consider the schools that will want you,” she says. “That’s how you will uncover the best deals.”
In a chart accompanying its article, the New York Times offers a treasure trove of data on schools offering the most generous merit packages. Here are ten colleges that award at least 24% of their incoming students scholarships averaging $17,000 or more.
Amounts represent the estimated merit aid given to first-time freshmen in 2011-12 (asterisks indicate final figures for 2010-11). Figures have been adjusted for inflation.
Colleges use sophisticated enrollment management techniques to attract desirable students and maximize revenue.
“A lot of it is done by computer programs to calculate how much aid they need to offer to each student so they can get the maximum number of desirable students without going over their financial aid budget,” says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com.
Many regional and religious colleges, he says, also try to “optimize their revenue” by offering partial scholarships to the students who can pay the rest of the tuition — even “B” students with an SAT verbal and math score of 1200 or less. Caution: You’ll have to maintain a grade-point average of about 2.7 to 3.0 to renew most scholarships after your first year.
When I searched for colleges for my son a few years ago, I screened for schools that offered merit aid and came up with a list that included many from the NYTimes chart. This was one area where our high school guidance counselor did not help, although she might have if I had asked. But as in many aspects of the college search, it’s the families that must do most of the legwork to find the best opportunities.
An important reminder: Some of these merit scholarships have early application deadlines, usually in the fall of senior year.
UPDATE: The ongoing confusion about whether a particular school offers merit aid, or only need-based aid, is highlighted by an apparent contradiction in this NYTimes article. This paragraph from the story claims Stanford University does NOT offer merit aid:
The most exclusive colleges and universities — the Ivy League, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and liberal arts colleges like Amherst — don’t offer merit aid at all. Grants go only to those deemed to have “need.”
But the chart accompanying the story lists Stanford as awarding 5% of its incoming freshman merit aid averaging $5,085 per student. My research shows that athletic scholarships are the only type of “merit” aid awarded by Stanford.
2nd UPDATE: After I submitted a comment to the story pointing out the contradiction regarding Stanford, I received a nice email back from the NYT thanking me and letting me know that they took Stanford out of the article. And they did not publish my comment nor did they add any mention of this correction.