Posts tagged ‘National Merit Scholarship Program’

December 27, 2012

College merit aid is unfair according to some critics

by Grace

College financial aid awarded on the basis of academic merit is wrong according to critics who believe schools should only offer scholarships based on financial need.

The University of Oklahoma has a particularly aggressive program of recruiting National Merit scholars for its scholarship program, enrolling about 200 each year.

Oklahoma’s program touches on a long-running argument within higher education, about the role of “merit aid” — scholarships that schools give on the basis of credentials like grades, test scores or musical skills — versus the aid that nearly all schools give on the basis of a student’s financial need. Most colleges give some academic merit aid (though some of the wealthiest and most selective schools do not), and the amount has increased over the years as competition for top students grows more fierce. Oklahoma’s honors program is an extreme example.

Questioning who exactly benefits from merit aid

“There are those, me included, who say the purpose of aid should be to help people go to college who might not be able to otherwise,” said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “Giving merit scholarships to kids who would have been going to college anyway can benefit the institution without necessarily benefiting the broader public.”

Should state schools be spending money to attract smart students?

The dispute is especially sharp when it comes to state schools, which face dwindling resources and are seen as having a public service mission, but it is largely confined to those who study education policy. Oklahoma’s program draws little other fire, on or off campus, even given that about half of the National Merit scholars come from out of state.

Some arguments in support of merit aid

“Having these kinds of classmates motivates other students, it elevates class discussions, it’s a recruiting tool when we go after new students or faculty,” said David Ray, a political science professor and dean of the Honors College. “We don’t just throw money at them to get them here; we give them unique opportunities once they’re here.”

Merit aid is distasteful to some because it may perpetuate a type of elitism, but the benefits of rewarding and grooming high-performing students seem like a no-brainer to me.


November 5, 2012

Full ride at a third-tier college or full pay at dream school?

by Grace

What is the right decision when an aspiring college student has the choice of a generous scholarship at a lower-ranked school or paying full freight at a top dream school?  Clearly there is no single right answer.

If the family cannot afford to pay without borrowing most of the costs or otherwise creating a burden that seriously threatens their financial health, the answer must simply be to go with the scholarship.

Sometimes it’s more complicated.
But if the question applies to the case where a family could afford to pay college costs with a manageable financial sacrifice, determining the right answer becomes more complicated.  I disagree with the sanctimonious stance of those who declare that if you decide NOT to sacrifice deeply to pay for the “best” (expensive) college experience, then it means that you must not value education sufficiently.  At the same time, I admire families who decide to forego a second car, vacations, and other niceties of life so their child can attend his dream school.  Going so far as to dipping into retirement savings is a bit questionable, but I can even see how that would make sense in some cases.  There is not one “right” school for a particular student, and there is not one “right” way to select a school.  Money is a big part of the decision for most of us.

Candice Childress is a high school senior blogging in the New York Times about her own dilemma in considering unfamiliar universities that may offer her a full-ride because she has qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist.  She has dreams of studying film in California, but she also recognizes the practicalities of taking advantage of a scholarship offer such as the ones hinted at in letters she received from the University of New Mexico and the University of Central Florida.

… If Orlando or Albuquerque wants to pony up the cash for me to flail my way through my general education courses, who am I to reject that out of hand?

I have to actively fight off my film fantasies and love of Hollywood while making my decision. There are schools I dream about here in the West, schools I imagine would be perfect for me, but as of yet there is nary a word from them, much less any guarantees.

On the other hand, I have what amounts to a pair of promises that bear a fair resemblance to full rides. I have never been to Orlando, and I can barely spell Albuquerque …

It’s not that I dislike anything about the University of New Mexico or the University of Central Florida — it’s just that I know absolutely nothing about them. I’m intrigued by both locales … If I want to be in Los Angeles, what will I have to sacrifice to stay?

Childress will have to decide if the benefit of saving thousands of dollars is more important than realizing her dream to attend school in Los Angeles.  It may be a difficult decision, but she has several months to ponder the question.

My family was in a similar situation several years ago, but with the added factor that our child did not have strong opinions about one or more dream schools that were perfect for him.  In the end, we decided to forego the free money and go with a more prestigious school that offered very little merit aid.  It was a good decision, but I’m not convinced it was the only “right” decision.  Although I believe his school’s sterling reputation, strong academic environment, and opportunities for peer influence have already made a difference, ultimately we will never know what other benefits might have come from another choice.

A “first-tier” school does not guarantee a “first-tier” life.

While there are certainly stories about how the tremendous financial sacrifice was worth every cent of the cost of a top-tier college, this CollegeConfidential thread relates the success stories of students who saved money by attending lower-ranked schools, often going on to graduate studies with no financial worries.  On comment in particular seems to sum up the experience of most students.

Your story probably accounts for the vast majority of the students who go to “third-tier” schools; a lot of kids seem to assume that the US News rankings are match up to real life (ie, people who go to first tier schools get first-tier lives, people who go to third tier schools get third tier lives of drudgery and boredom) and it’s important for them to know that this just ain’t so….

Related articles:

September 27, 2012

A glossary of high school standardized tests

by Grace

From Princeton Review, a glossary of standardized tests

AP (Advanced Placement): End of year, college level exams that are used for admissions purposes at just a few competitive schools (the Ivies, Berkeley, UCLA, USC), and to give students college credit at virtually every college and university. The scoring grid goes from 1-5 (higher is better), with 3 representing a passing score. These tests are traditionally given at a student’s high school during the second and third weeks of May. ACT: An alternative to the SAT. This test tends to reward students who are better in reading and grammar than they are in math. The ACT is the dominant college entrance exam in the Midwest and the South, and is scored on a 1-36 basis (the average score is about 21 or 22). The best time to take this test is in February or April of the junior year and/or September of the senior year. The practice ACT is called the PLAN. To sign up for the actual ACT, go to

PSAT: An excellent practice test for the SAT that has absolutely nothing to do with college admissions. Rather it serves the following functions. It is a strong window into your testing soul — if you do well on the PSAT, you are likely to do equally well on the SAT. Very good testers can achieve National Merit stardom, a scholarship contest that is predominantly linked to PSAT scores from the junior year of PSAT testing. Finally, when you sign up for the PSAT, you will be given the chance to join the Student Search Service through which your name will be released to colleges and you will receive ridiculous amounts of junk mail from colleges that both interest and horrify you. The PSAT is offered at your school during the second week or the third Saturday of October and you must sign up for this test through your high school. There is no essay or Algebra II on the PSAT and it’s about half the length of the SAT.

SAT: The grande dame of admissions tests and you know it all too well. The SAT is popular in the West and the East, and is scored from 600-2400. The average score is about a 1560, a good score is anything over 1800, and 2200+ is the number for the most ridiculously competitive schools. The SAT has Math, Reading and Writing sections, includes some Algebra II and an essay, and can be taken 2-3 times since colleges only count students’ highest scores. To sign up to take the actual SAT, you go to

Subject Tests: The Subject Tests are one hour, multiple choice exams that focus on individual subjects. Until recently, these used to be called the SAT II exams. Subject Tests are offered in Biology (Ecology or Molecular), Chemistry, Physics, World History, US History, Math Level I (not accepted by the UC but is accepted by private colleges), Math Level 2, English Literature and a host of foreign languages. These are of some significance in elite private college admissions, and can be submitted to UC schools to show strength in a subject where perhaps your grade is a little soft. If you are fluent in a foreign language, then take the Language with Listening Subject Test on the first Saturday in November. The test is offered in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. You will need to bring a portable CD player with headphones with you to the testing center. You may take up to three Subject Tests in one day (although we wouldn’t recommend it – it’s pretty tiring), and each Subject Test is scored on the 200-800 scale. A good score is 600+, and a great score is anything over 700. To sign up to take the actual Subject Tests, you go to

Related:  A recommended schedule for taking the SAT, ACT, and AP tests (Cost of College)

August 29, 2012

Quick Takes – Alabama NMFs, recruited athletes at top colleges, & surplus of college professors

by Grace

—  240 NMFs in the freshman class this fall at the University of Alabama

This report comes from a CollegeConfidential thread that mentions last year’s number was 182 National Merit Finalists.  The bad news is that Alabama recently downsized its NMF scholarship to pay for only one year of housing instead of four as it previously did.  And instead of a laptop, the package now includes an iPad.  It’s still a sweet deal, however.

Related:  University of Alabama scholarships – Roll Tide! (Cost of College)

—  ‘Recruited athletes make up 20 percent of the class’ at most top colleges.

Like other hooked students, recruited athletes get a boost in their chances for admission.

Like it or not, 40 percent of the class at most top colleges are reserved for “hooked” kids — the largest group is generally recruited athletes (up to 20 percent), the rest are legacies, underrepresented minorities, development cases (donors) and V.I.P.’s (famous people’s kids). It’s hard for me to say legacy preferences are not fair because the truth is that the process isn’t fair and legacies take up a relatively minor percentage of the class (typically 10 percent).

Their boost? Generally only two to four times the general admissions odds. To put this in perspective, for a school that has a 15 percent admission rate, legacies might get in at 35 percent, but recruited athletes are more like 80 percent and minorities closer to 90 percent (at least for African-Americans and native Americans).
Athletes Are the Problem (New York Times)

—  The US will no longer need hundreds or thousands of organic chemistry professors.

Writing in the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell suggests that the online higher education trend may lead to a surplus of some types of college professors.

A great consolidation of personnel must be the result of this technological shift. Once courses are online, best practices will emerge. The US will no longer need hundreds or thousands of organic chemistry professors. Network effects will bring a stampede of students to the courses of the best universities. Students will abandon even excellent professors at excellent universities to learn code-writing the “MIT way” or the “Stanford way”, if they believe that is the idiom their future bosses are most likely to speak in.

In his essay Caldwell also makes the point that one way for online schools to become profitable is a variation on the “bait and switch” tactic.  Many courses are free now, but that will can change at some point.

… It is wiser not to start charging until habits, dependencies and institutional ruts have made online education indispensable.

July 28, 2011

University of Alabama scholarships – Roll Tide!

by Grace

The University of Alabama awards merit scholarships to about 25% of its incoming freshman class, including the full-ride offered to National Merit and National Achievement finalists.  It’s a sweet deal that pays full tuition, housing, a laptop computer, $1,000 per year cash and a $2,000 allowance for research or international study.  Other generous scholarships pay full and partial tuition to students with high SAT and ACT scores.

For many students from the Northeast and other parts of the country, the thought of attending school in the Deep South is a strong disincentive for even initial consideration of these generous scholarships.  Beyond the location, a high-achieving student may have other objections to UA.  Concerns about size, intellectual climate, diversity, conservative atmosphere, strong Greek presence,  and heavy football culture are often mentioned.

Most students cannot be “talked into” a particular college, certainly not by their parents.  But if parents want (or need) their children to consider colleges that offer significant merit aid, they should investigate UA more closely and even think about visiting.  There are many stories of previously unenthusiastic students won over by the positive experience of visiting UA.  Keep in mind that students who are part of the UA Honors College benefit from  close association with hundreds of NMFs and other high-achieving scholars.  It’s clear that a rigorous intellectual experience for its top students is a priority for this school.

I’m not trying to push Bama as the perfect college for all students.  But I know that the alternative of paying $100,000 or more to attend a full pay school would be a hardship for many families.

Some quick facts from the school website:

The University of Alabama ranked 6th in the nation among public universities in the enrollment of National Merit Scholars in the 2010 freshman class.

The University of Alabama ranked among the top 50 public universities in the nation for the 10th consecutive year in U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings, fall 2010.

Of the 30,232 undergraduate, professional, and graduate students enrolled at UA in the fall semester of 2010,

  • 67% come from Alabama
  • 31% come from elsewhere in the United States
  • 3% are international students from 72 countries
  • 27% of our undergraduates belong to sororities or fraternities
  • 53% are women
  • 12% are African-American
  • 2% are Hispanic-American
  • 1% are Asian-American
July 23, 2011

National Merit Scholar introverts

by Grace

Susan Cain writes about the gifts and power of introverts.

Introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately, earn disproportionate numbers of National Merit Scholarship finalist positions and Phi Beta Kappa keys, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, a research arm for the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator — even though their I.Q. scores are no higher than those of extroverts.

I agre with Cain that introversion is an “undervalued status” in today’s schools.

… Children’s classroom desks are now often arranged in pods, because group participation supposedly leads to better learning; in one school I visited, a sign announcing “Rules for Group Work” included, “You can’t ask a teacher for help unless everyone in your group has the same question.” 

A commenter at Kitchen Table Math, makes a good point.

It’s a mistake to refer to “shyness and introversion” in the same breath.

Katherine Beals writes a lot on this topic on Out in Left Field

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