Can My Kid Get a Full-Ride Scholarship?

Money in handI was listening to a financial call-in program the other day and the topic of how a lady was going to pay for her kid’s college came up.  She said, “I’m hoping she will get a scholarship.”  That was it.  She had no money saved, the daughter was in high school and she was counting on a scholarship.  I inferred that she meant a “full-ride scholarship” since it didn’t sound like she had any room in her budget to be paying for college through cash flow.  I laughed as I thought about how unrealistic this was.  Then I thought about how easy it might be to get sucked into believing that.  The conversation didn’t go into any specifics about her child,  like test scores or grades.  Maybe the girl was a genius, I don’t know, but I remembered my own delusion.

While I never thought my oldest daughter was going to get a full ride for four years of college, I did think she was special because she had a great GPA and a 30+ ACT as well as lots of volunteer hours and extra-curricular activities.  Early on in my college search, I was sure this would get her lots of merit scholarship offers.  After I started reading articles and posts online, I found out lots of other students had statistics that were at least as impressive as hers, and there were also the National Merit Finalists.  I started thinking, wow, there is going to be a lot of competition for these scholarships!  This proved to be true.

At one school, my daughter was invited to compete, along with almost 400 other high-flying students, for 20 scholarships ranging from three-quarters of the tuition cost to full tuition plus room and board.   She was not one of the twenty winners and in this case she was relieved because she really didn’t want to go to that school anyway.

A true “full-ride” scholarship consists of tuition plus room and board.  Some even go farther and throw in books, spending money, an internship, and/or a laptop computer.  More prevalent would be the “full tuition” scholarships.  These technically wouldn’t count as “full-ride,” but I guess if your student is going to live at home and commute to a school providing a full tuition scholarship, it would be pretty much the same.

So how many four-year full-ride scholarships are out there?  In my research, I found 4 types of full-ride scholarships:

  1. Automatic full ride provided by the college based on ACT/SAT score and GPA – through lists available online, I found only 19 schools in the country that do this.  There were 16 more that only offered full tuition.  There could be more schools out there that haven’t made it to any lists.
  2. Automatic full ride provided by the college for being a national merit finalist or semi-finalist – I found 23 schools offering a full ride and an additional 45 offering full tuition (some also throw in extra money for expenses or books)
  3. Competitive full ride provided by the college (either students come to the school for a special competition or the admissions office selects students to receive these based on their application materials)  – I found at least 48 schools that offered competitive full rides and an additional 38 schools that offered competitive full-tuition scholarships.  I suspect that this number is low and that there are many other schools out there that offer a small number of these each year to attract the brightest students.  These vary a lot with respect to the criteria used.  Some require national merit finalist or semi-finalist status to compete, some require certain GPA and ACT/SAT scores, some require a separate application with an essay, and others pre-qualify students with grades and test scores, but require them to interview and/or write an essay for the final selection.
  4. Private full ride provided through a corporate or foundational scholarship program – There are at least four well-known in this category:  Stamps Foundation, Gates Millenium Scholarship, Chick Evans Caddie Scholarships and QuestBridge National College Match.

Of the schools that used ACT/SAT score as a determining factor for a scholarship or a competition, 32 was the most common low-end score accepted.  Some lesser-known state schools will accept below this.  Several Alabama state schools offer full tuition down to a 28 ACT.  The really great automatic scholarships are not coming from colleges near the top of any “best colleges” ranking lists.  They are coming from schools that desperately want to attract top students to their campuses. 

I am working on a spreadsheet compiling all of the schools offering full-ride and full-tuition scholarships in the categories above.  It is a pretty large undertaking!  I will post it on my site when it is complete.  Update – The Full Scholarship List is now available!


Paying for College, Scholarships ,

8 comments


  1. What a great amount of research you did, Wendy. It proves that getting a full ride or full tuition scholarship is a pretty daunting task irregardless of a student’s qualification. A parent not saving for college runs the risk of limiting his/her child’s college choices or will be dipping into retirement savings. Most families can reduce the chance of these outcomes.

    I look forward to the spreadsheets you are creating. I imagine that small, private colleges will be well represented since they use the chance of strong scholarship offers to attract high quality students, as you indicate. For many students receiving these offers, these colleges can be great choices. They have stronger chances of performing undergraduate research, being leaders in campus activities, and will be learning in a cooperative (as opposed to competitive) atmosphere.

    Unfortunately, your list may shrink over time. I am aware of a liberal arts college who used to give full tuition scholarship through a competition weekend on campus. Currently, the maximum scholarship is about two-thirds tuition and it is base solely on class rank and test scores. My understanding is that they believe they will experience an increased acceptance rate for high quality students with the current scheme.

    • Wendy Nelson

      Thanks, Chuck. Great comments. I also think it will be interesting to see what happens with these scholarships in the years to come.

  2. chip schindler

    Hi,
    I appreciate the research that you have put together. I am finding this process difficult to sort out. My son has very good grades and test scores. We are trying to find the best schools he can qualify for merit aid. I would welcome the opportunity to review the list of what you have for these two catagories.

    1) Automatic full ride provided by the college based on ACT/SAT score and GPA

    2) Competitive full ride provided by the college

    Thanks for the help!
    Chip

  3. Faith

    Looking forward to the list. Keep up the great work!

  4. I can attest that the availability of full ride scholarships is dwindling over time. I have sent 5 students to college since 2004. Two of those students have been National Merit Finalists, Two have been National Merit Commended Scholars. The scholarships available at some schools my oldest daughter considered have disappeared. We discovered that even though the University of Oklahoma heavily recruits National Merit Finalists and their literature makes it look like they offer a full ride, in reality, that is only if you are an in-state student. Out of state students have to pay the out of state tuition and the scholarship doesn’t cover that. My son was able to go to a private school in our state that offered a generous scholarship (not full ride) for less money than the ‘large’ offer at OU. You really do have to read the fine print and do lots of research. I have noticed more and more schools dropping their full ride opportunities. I suspect it has something do with the economy and the fact that their endowment funds aren’t producing like they used to do. I get really annoyed with test prep info that makes it sound like there is so much ‘free’ money available if you study hard for the SAT and make a high score. I think they are in for a disappointment, as you suggested in your post.

    • Wendy Nelson

      Thanks for your post, Karen! That is part of what I am running into while compiling my list of full ride scholarships. Much of the information I started with through the College Confidential forums is no longer accurate. It does seem like colleges are dropping some of the full ride programs. Thanks for sharing your experience.