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12 Things to Know About Merit Aid Scholarships

Merit aid helps lower college costs.

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. This type of aid is not awarded based on need, but on academic, athletic, artistic or special-interest merit. The average merit award among the 1,078 ranked colleges that provided this information to U.S. News in an annual survey was about $11,279 in fall 2018. Merit aid might cover a student's entire tuition or be a one-time award of a few hundred dollars. Here are 12 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, for example, charged $56,818 for tuition and fees in 2019-2020, but the liberal arts college offered 49% of students merit aid and the average non-need-based award was $16,998 in fall 2018.

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 fall 2018, the average amount of merit aid awarded to out-of-state students was $8,620, based on data reported to U.S. News by 347 public institutions. In comparison, the average for in-state students was about half that amount -- $4,676 -- according to data from 357 schools. Merit aid is often used to offer more competitive prices in an effort to draw students from other states.

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 program will provide students about $41 million in 8,700 awards in 2021. 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.

There are some full rides for National Merit Scholars.

"Some colleges, like Baylor University, provide full-tuition academic scholarships if the student is a National Merit Scholar and selects the school as their top choice," Adler says. Other colleges, like the University of Louisville, offer scholars full in-state tuition plus a $32,000 allowance for room, board and books, or $80,000 to out-of-state scholars.

Honors colleges sometimes offer merit aid.

Honors colleges at state schools not only offer perks such as registering for class early, but often give academic scholarships to students. Select students may even receive a tuition break. "Mississippi State has awesome merit-based packages," a college graduate originally from New York told U.S. News in 2016. "Because I got a 30 on my ACT, they waived out-of-state tuition and gave me half off in-state tuition." With her stellar ACT score, she enrolled at Mississippi State University's Shackouls Honors College.

A number of students receive merit aid.

At schools where merit aid is granted, a significant number of students may receive an award. According to data submitted to U.S. News by 1,093 ranked schools, 15% of students received merit aid in fall 2018 on average. Students may have a better chance of receiving merit aid if they attend a private college, where about 18% of students received merit aid, according to data reported by around 670 schools, compared with 10% of students at public institutions, based on data from about 420 schools.

Community organizations offer merit scholarships.

Community organizations often award scholarships to local students, experts say. "Many of these scholarships are not heavily advertised, so you aren't likely to find them on well-known scholarships search engines," says Olivia Valdes, a college admissions consultant and founder of Florida-based Zen Admissions. "Instead, try a few online sleuthing strategies. Check out the websites of all the high schools in your area and look for a guidance counseling or college advising page, where you may find lists of local scholarships."

You don't need to be a straight-A student.

"You don't have to be a class valedictorian to win scholarship money," Valdes says. Experts say students with a variety of GPAs may qualify for merit scholarships -- and many awards emphasize areas other than academics, such as leadership or school involvement.

Private awards are based on certain criteria.

Private merit scholarships are often awarded on the basis of either a submitted essay or other application criteria as outlined by the granting organization. Students can search sites such as Unigo to find these offerings. According to the site, around $5 billion is available in merit-based scholarships.

Merit aid can be one-time only.

Get all the facts when it comes to merit aid. Scholarships and grant aid can be nonrenewable, meaning the aid is available only for a specific term or academic year. Students must not only maintain eligibility requirements for the merit aid that is renewable, but they must also be vigilant in understanding the terms of the aid to ensure it will continue beyond freshman year. Typically, upperclassmen receive less grant aid than their freshman counterparts and have higher out-of-pocket costs.

Find more ways to pay for college.

The search to tackle college costs shouldn't end here. Follow U.S. News Education on Facebook and Twitter to join the conversation, and stay informed about the latest tips and advice on paying for college.

Facts about merit scholarships

-- Ivy League universities don't offer merit aid.

-- Some colleges offer merit aid to reduce costs.

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

-- Students may need to maintain a certain GPA.

-- The National Merit Scholarship Program offers millions in aid.

-- There are some full rides for National Merit Scholars.

-- Honors colleges sometime offer merit aid.

-- A number of students receive merit aid.

-- Community organizations offer merit scholarships.

-- You don't need to be a straight-A student.

-- Private awards are based on certain criteria.

-- Merit aid can be one-time only.



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