College Choice Options for Top Students

Published by Wendy Nelson on

A+There are many great college choice options for top students.  Many parents who find my website are those searching for scholarships for high ACT scores or SAT scores, or scholarships for national merit finalists/semi-finalists.  My Full Scholarship List is a great resource for parents and students looking for great scholarships based on their standings at the top of the class.

High school students with high ACT scores or SAT scores and great grades are in a unique position when it comes to college choice.  They have more options available to them.  Which option they choose will have a lot to do with balancing affordability and rigor.

Top Student College Choice Options

  1. Highly Selective Admissions – Top students are positioned to be in the running for ivy league and other highly selective colleges.  However, this pool of colleges often has admission rates below 20% of applicants.  This means that many top students will be turned away.  This option is best for families who don’t need any financial aid or families who will qualify for major financial aid.
  2. Full-Ride and Full-Tuition Merit Scholarships – There are many colleges around the country that will award full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to attract top students.  Let me be clear here though – these are not the colleges with the most selective admissions.  These schools do not need to offer full scholarships to attract top students.  However, there are good colleges, many with honors programs, that will offer the top student a solid education that is fully paid or incredibly affordable.
  3. Medium Merit Scholarship – Dig a little deeper than the schools offering full-ride and full-tuition scholarships for top students and you will find a whole realm of colleges that offer top students decent merit scholarships.  These often cover half tuition or better.  Schools of all sizes offer both automatic and competitive merit scholarship programs.  These are harder to find.  You will probably need to check out the school websites to see what they offer and use the Net Price Calculator or talk to the admissions office to get an idea of what your student may be eligible for.
  4. Honors Programs – I mentioned this briefly above.  An honors program can make a less selective college more attractive to top students.  A student looking for academic rigor in college can find that two ways: 1) Through a highly selective college, or 2) Through an honors program or honors college.  A less selective school with an honors program can be much more affordable than a highly selective college.

As I mentioned above, the college choice options for top students comes down to a balance between affordability and academic rigor.  If cost is not a factor for your family, then highly selective colleges are probably the best way to go.  However, if cost is an option, you will be looking for great merit scholarships or schools that offer great need-based aid.

Highly selective colleges tend not to offer merit scholarships, but they do tend to offer large amounts of financial aid to families who qualify.  Family incomes of $60,000 or less will often pay very little for these schools (can be cheaper than in-state tuition at the state’s universities).  Even family incomes of around $150,000 – $200,000 can receive some financial aid at these schools, but it may not be enough to bring the high sticker price down to an affordable level.

Families in the middle, worried about the cost of college, but with incomes too high to qualify for financial aid, will find the best deals at schools that offer great merit scholarships.