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What Types of Colleges Give Merit-Based Aid?

If you or someone in your family is applying for college, you’ll want to know about all of the financial aid opportunities available to you. However, scholarships and financial aid can vary by your state of residence and the individual school to which you are applying. 

While some colleges and universities award merit-based aid to applicants, others do not. 

So, what types of colleges give merit-based aid? How is “merit” calculated when assigning aid to students? Finally, how can you ace your college planning AND find a school that provides financial assistance based on academic credentials?

We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s look at the two different kinds of financial aid and how they differ:

Need-Based Aid vs. Merit-Based Aid

Though there are many ways to get financial help for college, there are two main categories for aid supplied by an academic institution: need-based aid and merit-based aid. The former refers to aid that an individual or family receives based on their financial need, while the latter refers to aid awarded to those who meet certain academic criteria. 

The vast majority of schools offer some form of need-based aid. That said, not every applicant will qualify. An applicant’s “need” for aid is determined by a complex formula called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. This is based upon parent and student income, as well as qualifying parent and student assets.

Alternatively, those who do not qualify for need-based aid might qualify for merit-based aid. The criteria for merit-based aid varies by institution. However, most schools will look at SAT scores, ACT scores, high school GPA, entrance exam results, or a combination of all of these academic factors to determine who will receive merit-based aid. 

Some families we work with can quickly be ruled out for need-based aid due to the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) formula. When that happens, we turn our attention to merit-based aid possibilities. While many of the elite private institutions do not give out merit-based aid (i.e. the Ivy League schools and similarly ranked private institutions) because they simply don’t have to, there are other schools that shouldn’t be overlooked.

How to Qualify for Merit-Based Aid

First, pay attention to your academic credentials. If a student is compiling a list of schools, the ones most likely to give substantial amounts of aid are those where that student’s GPA and test scores rank in the top 25% of students at that school. 

Simply put, schools are competing with each other and want to raise their average ACT and GPA numbers. So, many schools are willing to pay students to help them do that!

If your child falls in the bottom 25% of students at a particular university, this is a “reach” school by admission standards. While the student might still get in based on other factors, do not expect merit-based aid to follow. After all, schools cannot provide merit-based financial aid to every applicant.

Don’t overlook honors colleges and programs at large public institutions! Large public schools typically create honors colleges that have many of the same benefits as an elite private university (special housing, small class sizes, access to advisors, and other special programs). Unlike private universities, honors schools often give substantial merit-based aid to help attract more students with high academic credentials.

These honors programs sometimes contain full academic scholarships or a completely free ride to the school. Additionally, the student has the benefit of being in class with highly motivated and driven students, while still being able to enjoy the resources of a larger public institution.

Remember: smaller, non-elite, private schools are the ones most likely to give merit-based aid. This is primarily due to the fact that they compete with one another and want to drive their academic numbers up. 

Applying to several schools that frequently compete with one another ultimately allows you to use offer letters from each school to “appeal” to certain merit-based aid decisions. If a college sees an admissions letter from a neighboring or competing school, it is more likely to revise its offer to a student to help bring the overall cost down. That way, it doesn’t lose out to a competitor. 

We understand that the college application process can be stressful, so feel free to contact us if you need help developing a comprehensive strategy to apply for and fund your child’s college experience!