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What is "merit aid" and how to get it?

What is “merit aid”?

Merit aid, or “merit-based scholarship money,” is awarded to students based on their academic profile. There’s usually no separate application process for merit aid, and any award amounts will be included in the student’s acceptance letter. While the criteria is different for each school, it’s typically found that applicants who are in the top 25% of a college’s most recently admitted freshman class are most likely to be awarded merit aid.

Unlike loans, merit-based grants and scholarships don’t have to be repaid and, in most cases, are renewable each year if you continue to meet certain academic conditions.

Merit aid versus financial aid

When it comes to paying for college, merit aid is one way to close the gap between the cost of attendance and need-based financial aid. Unlike financial aid, which is based on financial need (as assessed in the financial material submitted in the FAFSA– Free Application for Federal Student Aid), merit aid is a form of college financial aid that does not consider a student's financial need, but rather is awarded based on academic, athletic, artistic or special-interest merit.

2 important items to keep in mind:

  1. Merit aid is NOT based on financial need, but on a student’s academic and sometimes artistic or athletic merit.

  2. Most colleges do NOT require a separate application for merit aid. The money is granted based on the student’s college application.

Here are a few more things to know about merit scholarships:

Ivy League universities don't offer merit aid.

"All Ivy League schools, as well as several other very selective schools like Stanford, MIT and Caltech, do not give any academic merit scholarships. No matter if you discovered a cure, created the world's greatest invention, won an Academy Award or an Olympic gold medal," says Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors. While they don't offer merit aid, Ivy League schools are known to be generous with meeting full financial need.

Some colleges offer merit aid to reduce costs.

Colleges with high sticker prices often offer awards to qualified students who have shown that they can't afford the school's full price. Oberlin College in Ohio, for example, charged $56,818 for tuition and fees in 2019-2020, but the liberal arts college offered 42% of students merit aid, and the average non-need-based award was $16,998 that year, per U.S. News data.

Out-of-state students may receive more merit aid than in-state students.

At public schools, out-of-state students generally receive more merit aid than in-state students. In 2019-2020, the average amount of merit aid awarded to out-of-state students was $8,786, based on data reported to U.S. News by 340 ranked public institutions. In comparison, the average for in-state students was about half that amount – $4,881 – according to data from 347 schools. Merit aid is often used to offer more competitive prices in an effort to draw students from other states.

Which colleges offer the most merit aid?

Merit aid is financial aid awarded to students on the basis of their academic or extracurricular accomplishments, rather than their financial need. The following table indicates the percentage of incoming freshmen receiving merit aid at more than 300 of America’s selective colleges, as well as the average merit award received. We also included the average Cost of Attendance (COA), a figure that includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses. Data was collected from each institution's 2021-22 Common Data Set, the most recent year for which such data is made available.

Merit Aid by College (updated Nov 2022)

How to search for merit scholarships?

So how do you find that information? Search for merit scholarships.

  • Many colleges and universities have separate pages for merit scholarships that a simple search will pull up. If you do not see one, try searching "[College/University Name] Scholarships" or "[College/University Name] Financial Aid." If you start at the university's financial aid section, you can find information on scholarships (both merit and need-based) from there. If you can't find the information online, try contacting either the financial aid or undergraduate admissions offices.

Keep the following guidelines in mind as you search:

  • Make sure the scholarships you find are specifically designated for "Entering Freshmen." These are the scholarships that will apply to you as a high school student applying to college.

  • See if the college makes a designation between in-state and out-of-state applicants. In some cases, state universities will give bigger scholarships to non-resident applicants since out-of-state tuition is higher. Sometimes there are also differences in requirements and cut-off scores.

  • Check if there are separate application requirements or deadlines. Scholarship money is limited, so in general, the earlier you can apply, the better.

Students may need to maintain a certain GPA.

Some non-need-based aid is contingent on certain stipulations to maintain the award on a yearly basis. Usually, it's a GPA requirement. Other requirements might include enrolling in and passing certain courses or filling out a form by a stated deadline each year. Students should check with their financial aid office to ensure that they understand all of the requirements of the merit aid they've been offered.

The National Merit Scholarship Program offers millions in aid.

The organization behind the National Merit Scholarship Program will provide students about $40 million in 8,700 awards in 2022. There are three types of awards: National Merit Scholarships of $2,500, corporate-sponsored scholarships and college-sponsored merit scholarships. To qualify, students must take the PSAT and be enrolled as a high school student, among other program requirements.

Colleges may award merit aid for leadership.

Students who demonstrate leadership skills can win merit aid at some schools. In an annual U.S. News survey, the University of California—Berkeley, for example, listed leadership as one of the criteria used to award merit aid, in addition to academics and athletics. At Berkeley, the average merit aid award in 2019-2020 was $8,335, according to U.S. News data.

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