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Merit Aid is Crucial to Your Kid's College Decision. Here's Why.

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When Neeta Vallab’s daughter started her college search two years ago, Vallab, founder of MeritMore, listened to all the advice. "Everywhere we looked, we heard, 'Don't worry about the sticker price — most families don't pay that,' but when we realized we wouldn't qualify for need-based aid, it started looking like we might have to pay the full sticker price, which was impossible.” 

According to College Board, various types of colleges costs include: 

  • Public two-year colleges (in-district): $3,440
  • Public four-year colleges (in-state): $9,410
  • Public four-year colleges (out of state): $23,890
  • Private four-year colleges: $32,410

“Affording to pay for college is a luxury for many, and thousands of students graduate with colossal amounts of debt each year, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education “Receiving merit based aid can be a great way for students to afford to attend college without having to take on so much debt.”

Rim says that receiving a large amount of merit based aid, like a full ride or full tuition scholarship, can be extremely gratifying, and further motivate students to excel throughout their college careers.

What’s Merit-Based Aid?

If a family cannot pay full cost, then merit aid is a critical component of the college search process. Naturally, most families would opt to pay as little as possible for college, says Laurie Kopp-Weingarten, co-founder and president of One-Stop College Counseling. “Not all schools award merit aid, but many fantastic colleges and universities do. Families should certainly begin searching for institutions where their students might qualify. Many of our students qualify for extremely large awards: $25,000, $30,000 or more.”

“If a family says they need about half of the total cost covered by some type of aid, my first thought is to get the student to apply to a few schools where they will be a particularly unique candidate, perhaps slightly overqualified, so that they will have a greater likelihood of admissions with some merit-aid,” says Brady Norvall, founder of FindaBetterU. “Families have to decide if they want their kid going to the school with the best ‘brand’ and accumulating debt or whether they want their kid to get a great education and possibly have little to no debt. 

Norvall says he’d urge students to apply to what a lot of students call “safety schools.”

Your Solution to Understanding Merit-Based Aid

Vallab says that merit aid includes about $8 billion to $10 billion that colleges use to attract the type of  students they want. "This is the largest pool of money available to families who do not qualify for need-based aid," she says.

MeritMore solves families’ questions about merit-based aid by taking students’ academic profile information (SAT/ACT/GPA or GPA by itself) and uses a proprietary process called MeritMatch® to match students to colleges that are most likely to give them merit aid. Families can also search by college for merit aid information and can get results in under 30 seconds. 

Check out a few other features:

  • MeritMore’s comparative offer data has over 2,000 records of actual offer data and lets families to match their EFC and stats with those of students who have similar stats to see how much aid they got. Families can use this information to get a good idea of how much aid they may receive. 
  • MeritMore’s fully customizable Application Task Manager puts admission tasks and deadlines on one screen and allows users to edit and add as needed. You don’t need to toggle between spreadsheets to stay on top of the typical four to eight tasks required by each school. 
  • MeritMore features comparable graphs, links to honors programs at over 200 colleges, crime and safety statistics, links to over 300 virtual campus tours and updated standardized test policy information to help families make more informed college decisions. 

“College is one of the most expensive investments you make in a lifetime outside of buying your home, so I thought about incorporating some of the tools you'd find on the better real estate search sites,” says Vallab. “MeritMore can slice and dice the data to find those financial fit gems.”

How Much Merit-Based Aid Should Families Look for? 

The short answer: As much as possible!

If a family doesn’t qualify for need-based aid, then merit aid can be extremely important to make college affordable. Some colleges list on their websites, such as approximately how much merit a student might get based on their academic profile, while others may provide a merit aid estimate if you inquire. 

Find out how you qualify for need-based financial aid at each school your child applies for. Merit aid is typically given to students every year for four years.

“The answer to this question depends on a student's financial situation. If a student can afford to pay full tuition, room and board, he or she can prioritize other factors in choosing a school, such as social and academic fit, location and size,” says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education.

The amount of merit aid awarded goes against the cost of tuition. “If a college believes a family needs $20,000 per year in aid and that students gets awarded $15,000 per year in merit, the financial aid will then drop to $5,000 per year,” says Kopp Weingarten. “Many colleges have you apply to their college and if admitted, they award merit at that time. You can research average merit awards to see if the numbers look attractive.” 

What Are the Most Important Things to Know About Merit-Based Aid? 

First of all, it’s important to follow the timeline and checklist for the college search so you access all opportunities for exhausting all opportunities for merit-based aid. 

Next, know that the route to receiving merit based aid significantly differs from school to school. Some schools automatically consider all students for merit based aid, while others require students to complete separate forms or applications to receive merit-based aid. Determining how to apply for merit based aid should be at the top of the list of things each family spends time researching. 

It’s also important to understand the requirements for maintaining scholarships while in college, as some schools have minimum GPA requirements.

Kopp Weingarten says it’s a good idea to ask a variety of questions about merit-based aid at all colleges, such as: 

  • Is there a merit application or do all applicants get considered for merit?
  • Is the merit award automatically awarded for all four years? Is there a specific GPA that you must maintain to keep your merit award?
  • What percentage of incoming students have merit awards? What is their typical profile?
  • What is the range of merit awarded? (Lowest, highest)
  • If you switch majors/programs, will you lose your merit?
  • Do you have to interview for merit competitions? (e.g. finalist rounds)
  • Is merit aid awarded for academic accomplishments or do you award merit for artistic and athletic talent?

Which Schools Offer Merit-Based Aid?

All types of schools offer merit, from the least selective to the most selective. However, certain schools have a policy of only awarding need-based aid. The Ivy League doesn’t offer merit-based scholarships, though some highly selective schools do offer merit aid, including Emory University, University of Chicago, Duke, University of Virginia, University of Southern California and more. 

Get Merit-Based Aid

The bottom line to get the best merit-based aid? 

“Research,” says Rim. He says most schools post their application process and necessary qualifications on their websites.

Kopp Weingarten agrees. “You can log onto the college’s website and search ‘merit scholarships.’ The financial aid page will mention whether or not they award merit. There are also lists on the internet of colleges that offer merit,” she says.

Don’t forget to tap into MeritMore, says Vallab. “MeritMore is the ‘Blue Book’ of college financing. It’s a data platform for families to access merit aid information to make sound college financing decisions and efficiently navigate the college admissions process.”

 

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