Money for college doesn’t grow on trees. Or does it? Every year, billions of dollars wait to be plucked from the branches by college students seeking merit-based aid.
The National Merit Scholarship Program alone plans to award more than $28 million in spring 2022. Merit aid is awarded to students based on factors outside of just financial need. These awards generally factor in a student’s skill or ability for a certain specialty.
Brainiacs merit recognition, but a student can earn merit aid based on talent in athletics and other interests, including puppetry and vegetarianism, as well as lineage.
So what’s the catch?
Patience, diligence, and timing come into play. This guide can help students who are starting the search for merit-based aid.
What Is Merit Aid?
College aid can generally be broken down into two categories:
Need-based. Eligibility for need-based aid is based solely on the ability to pay for college. Students can look for state, possibly school, and federal aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA®, sharing information about income and assets.
Merit-based. Merit-based aid takes factors beyond financial need into account. According to the Department of Education, merit-based “means that something is based on a student’s skill or ability.”
Students can qualify for merit-based aid, often referred to as merit-based scholarships, with a variety of factors.
Scholarship money does not have to be paid back — it’s a gift. Merit aid can be a one-time payment, or it could be renewable year after year, depending on eligibility and terms of the aid.
Depending on a student’s financial needs, merit aid could cover part or all of their education costs. It might be just one component of a larger financial aid package.
Merit aid can be awarded for both undergraduate and graduate programs, and could be anything from a couple of hundred dollars for books and supplies to thousands of dollars to help cover tuition.
Recommended: FAFSA Guide
Strategies to Find Colleges that Offer Merit Aid
Not all schools offer merit aid. However, at schools where merit aid is offered, on average 22% of the student body received a merit award from the university, according to U.S. News & World Report. Here are a few tips on finding colleges that offer merit aid.
First things first, when you are creating your list of colleges you’re going to apply to — find out which of those offer merit aid. Knowing up front what options may be available to you is helpful and can be important as you prepare to pay for college.
Then, review the typical financial aid offer at your target schools. Some schools publish information on the percentage of students that receive merit aid and the average merit aid amount. Consider contacting the financial aid office if you have specific questions.
Another strategy to potentially improve your chance of merit aid — apply to schools where you are likely to get in. Since merit aid can be awarded on factors such as GPA, standardized test scores, or curriculum, being in the upper echelon of applicants could help put you at the front of the pack for earning merit aid.
In some situations, scholarship money may go unclaimed. Check out this guide to unclaimed scholarships for more information.
Which Schools Offer the Most Merit Aid?
Here’s what students can expect when it comes to merit aid from schools:
• Generally speaking, private colleges award more merit aid than public institutions.
• Ivy league schools don’t grant merit aid. No Ivy League institutions offer merit aid to their students. Other competitive universities, such as MIT, Stanford, and Caltech, don’t offer merit aid either.
• Some higher-cost colleges may offer more merit aid than others. The cost of attending some schools can send a student into shock. However, some costlier schools will offer more merit-based scholarships. Oberlin College, for example, recently offered 42% of its student body merit-based aid, about $17,000 on average, to offset tuition and fees that have reached nearly $57,000.
• Out-of-state students might be awarded more merit aid than in-state students at a public college or university. Because of the higher cost of attendance for out-of-state students, public schools may offer them merit aid to be more competitive.
• Honors programs may offer more merit aid. State school honors programs can sometimes come with tuition discounts, or academic scholarships for students who get into the prestigious programs.
Keeping these trends in mind could help students think more strategically about where they’ll attend college based on the chances of being awarded merit aid from the schools.
How to Apply for Merit Aid
While merit scholarships are often referred to as “free money” when it comes to funding education, there is some work involved. Each scholarship will likely have its own requirements and application process, which might include personal essays, recommendations, and interviews. It’s important to read through each application carefully so it’s filled out without error.
Merit-based aid does not hinge on the financial need of the student or family, so should you submit the FAFSA first? Some colleges require students to fill out the FAFSA in order to be considered for school-based scholarships, including those awarded based on academic merit.
Plus, filling out the FAFSA could help you qualify for other types of financial aid, such as need-based Pell Grants or Direct Unsubsidized Loans. A quick aside to note that federal loans offer benefits and protections not necessarily afforded to private student loans. Since the FAFSA is free to fill out, it’s generally worth taking the time to see what other types of aid you qualify for. If financial aid and merit awards aren’t enough, private student loans could help.
Recommended: Private Student Loan Guide
Generally, you won’t need to fill out the FAFSA as a prerequisite for applying for a private merit scholarship.
If you’re not sure about the requirements at your school, it can be worthwhile to call the college admissions office to see if a financial aid application is required to apply for any merit scholarships at that school.
When evaluating merit scholarships from other private sources, keep in mind that each one may have different application requirements and deadlines. Some deadlines may be as early as a year before college starts.
Finding Merit Aid Awards for College
Colleges and universities award merit aid, but there are many other ways to find scholarships, including private organizations and state-level scholarship search tools and directories.
You can learn about private merit scholarships by using search engines like CollegeBoard.org, Fastweb.com, and Scholarships.com. In addition, it can be helpful to talk to your school guidance counselor and the leaders of any organizations you participate in to suss out merit scholarships.
Consider exploring a few of the following avenues when seeking merit aid opportunities:
• Local groups. Local clubs or foundations offer scholarships. Community chapters of the Lions Club or Rotary Club offer aid for students seeking higher education. Because there’s a smaller pool of applicants, local merit scholarships may even be less competitive.
• Cultural organizations. Students from minority backgrounds have an opportunity for specific merit aid. Students of Native American descent, those who identify as LGBTQ, and women might qualify for scholarships.
• Foundations and nonprofits. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers full scholarships for those who qualify. Local nonprofits or educational foundations might offer small awards to students as well.
• Businesses. National companies, such as Google , offer generous merit aid.
• Niche interests and programs. Students who have an interest or hobby can search for merit aid surrounding it. Everything from greeting card creators to puppetry enthusiasts and promoters of vegetarianism have a chance to capitalize on their passions.
Once a student is granted merit aid, the funding might be directly credited to the school to pay for tuition, room, board, or other costs. Or the aid might come directly to the recipient via check. The size of the awards will vary, but seeking out aid in unexpected places can help drive down the cost of education.
Some Cautions About Merit Aid
Merit aid can be incredibly helpful for students paying for college. But, it’s important to understand the full picture of the merit aid awards you receive. Understand the terms of the aid award, and any ongoing eligibility requirements outlined by the scholarship or grant.
For example, is the award for one year? Or is it an annual award over your college education? If it is a merit award to cover each year of college, are there ongoing eligibility requirements such as maintaining a minimum GPA?
Understanding how and when the merit aid awards you earned are paid out can be important to help you avoid financial surprises, like suddenly losing your merit scholarship, down the road. College students will be facing a lot of financial-firsts on their journey. Take a look at SoFi’s Ca$h Course: A Student’s Guide to Money with even more tips and strategies on managing your finances through college.
A pot brimming with billions of dollars in college merit aid sits waiting every year. Stellar students and athletes come to mind as popular recipients, but merit scholarships are awarded based on other talents, too. To apply, deadlines and details require attention.
Merit aid might just be a piece of the puzzle, depending on the size and terms of the scholarship. Once federal and merit aid options have been exhausted, an undergraduate private student loan may help bridge any gaps.
Private student loans from SoFi offer competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers, and have no fees, and flexible repayment plans. With an all-online application, SoFi private student loans come with membership benefits and resources.
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