Merit Scholarships Make College More Affordable

Published by Wendy Nelson on

"Save Money" ButtonMerit scholarships make college more affordable, especially for those families who will not qualify for need-based aid. If you don’t know yet if you qualify for need-based financial aid, read Will We Qualify for Need-Based Financial Aid?

 If you are familiar with my Upside Down College Search process, you will know that I advocate starting the college search with a list of schools that will be affordable for your family rather than figuring out later which schools on your student’s list will be affordable. If you are not yet familiar with the Upside Down College Search process, you can register for my next LIVE online free training to explain it here.

Before we go any further, let’s dispel a few merit scholarship myths.

Merit Scholarship Myths

  1. Only the best students get merit scholarships – this is simply not true according to the data. Here are some examples from my database of over 11,500 merit scholarships offered by colleges around the country that prove not only top students get good merit scholarships:
    • There are over 1,300 scholarships listed with a minimum ACT requirement of 24 or lower and a minimum GPA requirement of 3.5 or lower.
    • In total, there are 1,800 scholarships that have a minimum high school GPA, where that minimum requirement is a 3.0 or lower.
    • There are 377 scholarships that have a minimum SAT score requirement, where that minimum requirement is 1000 or lower.
    • There are over 6,800 scholarships that do not have a minimum requirement for ACT, SAT or GPA in order to apply for the scholarship.
  2. The best merit scholarships are open to all students, regardless of where they want to go to college – this type of merit scholarship would be the “private” or “outside” scholarship that is offered by foundations, businesses and other organizations. The largest source of merit scholarships, by far, are the colleges themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great private scholarships out there, they are just very hard to win, not awarded to very many students each year, and your student will have a ton of competition if they apply.
  3. It’s easy to get a full ride merit scholarship – it is not easy and there are not a lot of these out there. However, it is not impossible. Check out my post, Who Gets Full Ride Scholarships?, for some statistics on how many of these full ride scholarships are out there and who is winning them.
  4. Millions of dollars in scholarship money go unclaimed – have you heard this one? All the sources I have heard talk about this say that it simply isn’t true. The only scholarships I am aware of that have gone unclaimed are local scholarships with very narrow criteria that require students to research and/or write about a specific topic.

Ways to Find Schools Offering Great Merit Scholarships

In the Upside Down College Search process webinar, I walk you through the best free and low-cost ways to find colleges that offer great merit scholarships. These are the best ways I have found:

  • Look up scholarships on the websites for all the schools your student is already interested in – This will limit your scope to finding merit scholarships at “known” schools. There will be lots of great scholarships offered by schools you don’t yet know about.
  • Use’s College Match feature and select a % of students receiving merit aid to find schools generous with merit aid. You will find this selection under “Financial Friendliness” under “Match by Preferences”.
  • Purchase the DIY College Rankings spreadsheet to create your own college list. You can search by schools that offer a large percentage of merit aid to students without need and/or a large average dollar amount of merit aid to students without need.
  • Subscribe to to search for schools offering great merit scholarships several ways. You can search both actual scholarships offered and overall statistics on merit aid offered to students without need. Search scholarships by scholarship value, type of scholarship (automatic, competitive, talent and national merit), or minimum ACT/SAT/GPA requirements.  Search schools by % of merit aid offered to students without need and average dollar amount of merit aid offered to students without need.

What Makes a “Good” Merit Scholarship?

  • Good merit scholarships bring down the cost of tuition at a private college to something comparable to an in-state public college (or less).
  • The best merit scholarships are renewable to cover all 4 years of college.
  • The best merit scholarships don’t require the student to keep a specific GPA to renew. Many do require a specific GPA for renewal, though. Make sure your student knows this and is prepared to work hard to meet it.
  • Good merit scholarships are stackable, meaning the student can qualify for more than one merit scholarship and these are stacked on top of each other to bring down the cost even more.

For more basics on merit scholarships, read Merit Scholarships – Types and Sources. It talks about the 3 main sources for merit scholarships. As I indicated above, colleges themselves are the #1 source for merit aid. Following behind that would be private sources like foundations, businesses and other organizations. The third source I considered was States. Many states in the U.S. offer some state-sponsored scholarships based only on merit. These are not as common as the states’ need-based aid, but could still be an important source to check into if you live in a state offering merit-based scholarships to its residents.