17 Things to Know About Merit Aid Scholarships

Farran Powell , Emma Kerr
·9 min read

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. 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. The average merit award to full-time undergraduates among the 1,023 ranked colleges that provided this information to U.S. News in an annual survey was $11,287 in the 2019-2020 academic year. Merit aid might cover a student's entire tuition or be a one-time award of a few hundred dollars. Here are 17 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.

Chances of getting merit aid are similar for in-state and out-of-state students.

Though out-of-state students typically receive larger merit aid awards, in-state and out-of-state students have about the same chances of receiving some kind of non-need-based aid, on average. According to U.S. News data, 35% of out-of-state students received such aid in 2019-2020 among the 340 ranked public colleges that reported this information. The proportion of in-state students receiving merit aid was similar -- 32% the same year among the 345 public colleges that reported this information.

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 1,076 ranked schools, 22% of undergraduates received merit aid in 2019-2020 on average. Students may have a better chance of receiving merit aid if they attend a private college, where 25% of students received merit aid, according to data reported by around 650 schools, compared with 18% of students at public institutions, based on data from about 420 schools.

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.

There are some full-tuition scholarships for National Merit Scholars.

Some colleges, like Iowa State University, provide National Merit Scholars who are residents of the state with full-tuition academic scholarships. Other colleges provide finalists differing awards. For students entering in fall 2021, the University of Louisville in Kentucky, for example, offers National Merit finalists full in-state tuition plus an $8,000 educational allowance, or $20,000 to out-of-state finalists.

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.

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.

Students can get merit scholarships for extracurriculars.

Athletic scholarships and awards for other extracurricular activities such as music, art or theater are considered a form of merit aid. Experts say students should consider all of their interests, hobbies, volunteer activities and household responsibilities as potential paths to merit scholarships. Students interested in musical theater, for example, can research scholarship options through organizations like the Educational Theatre Association.

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.

Colleges may award merit aid to students affiliated with alumni.

On top of academics, athletics and leadership, colleges can also award merit aid based on a range of personal qualities and considerations, including affiliation with alumni. The University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, for example, reported in an annual U.S. News survey that it awards merit aid based on academics; alumni affiliation; art; athletics; leadership; music and drama; participation in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC; religious affiliation; and state and district residency. The average merit aid award in 2019-2020 at UM--Ann Arbor was $5,569, per U.S. News data.

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 or the U.S. News Scholarship Finder to locate these offerings. According to Unigo, $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.

Some colleges require a separate application for merit aid.

Prospective students should be sure to research the policies at each college to which they're applying. "Some schools automatically offer students merit-based aid after they apply," Adler says. "For other schools, students need to complete separate applications to be considered for this type of aid." She also notes that in economically difficult times, colleges may reduce the number of merit scholarships they award in a given year, so students should also make sure to complete separate applications for private scholarships.

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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.

-- Chances of getting merit aid are similar for in-state and out-of-state students.

-- A number of students receive merit aid.

-- Students may need to maintain a certain GPA.

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

-- There are some full-tuition scholarships for National Merit Scholars.

-- Honors colleges sometime offer merit aid.

-- Community organizations offer merit scholarships.

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

-- Students can get merit scholarships for extracurriculars.

-- Colleges may award merit aid for leadership.

-- Colleges may award merit aid to students affiliated with alumni.

-- Private awards are based on certain criteria.

-- Merit aid can be one-time only.

-- Some colleges require a separate application for merit aid.