A Quick Guide To Merit Aid

For most students, cost is a very real and important factor in finding the right college fit. So as you decide what colleges to apply to, it’s important to learn what’s available to you in the way of merit aid money given out by colleges and states based on your individual accomplishments. Depending on what you’re eligible for, merit aid can actually make price less of a consideration when comparing colleges.

What Is Merit Aid?

Unlike need-based aid, which is determined entirely by your financial circumstances, merit aid is given in recognition of your achievements be they academic, athletic, artistic or otherwise. Think of merit aid as the payoff for those good grades and high SAT and ACT scores you worked so hard to achieve, as well as the hours you spent pursuing extracurricular activities, personal interests and hobbies.

Merit aid, however, is different than the typical college scholarships offered by private groups. Those awards are obtained by only a very small percentage of applicants, most of whom have a 4.0 GPA.

Tens of thousands of students each year receive merit aid from hundreds of colleges. The threshold to receive these awards may be as low as a 2.5 GPA. In other words, only the top percentile will get most private scholarships, but merit aid is readily achievable.

How Can Merit Aid Be Used?

Merit aid typically offsets tuition and college fees. For example, merit aid may allow an out-of-state student to pay in-state tuition. Some merit aid can also be used for other educational expenses like books or room and board. All merit aid programs will specifically outline the parameters of how the funds can be used, as well as whether or not the scholarship is renewable or a one-time award.

Types of Merit Aid

Merit aid comes from many different sources, but the most common types of merit aid include:

Merit Aid From Colleges

Most colleges, public and private, offer merit-based aid for students with outstanding academic track records. In many cases, these non-need-based scholarships can actually put tuition at a private or out-of-state school on par with the cost of a public, in-state college.

  • Eligibility: Colleges award merit aid based on factors including your GPA, SAT and ACT scores, overall academic achievement, leadership qualities, community involvement, and your talents and interests.
  • How To Apply: Call either the admissions office or the financial aid office to find out what merit aid your college of choice offers; most schools also list merit aid opportunities on their Web sites. Be sure to find out if there is a separate application process for merit aid, or if you’ll automatically be considered when you submit your admissions application.

State Merit Aid

Many states sponsor merit aid programs to encourage enrollment in public universities and make college more affordable for students at all income levels. Some states will even pay all of your tuition to certain colleges if you meet the program’s requirements.

  • Eligibility: To qualify, you typically must be a state resident and meet requirements for grade-point average, class rank or ACT/SAT scores.
  • How To Apply: Ask your high school guidance counselor if your state has a merit aid program, or simply do some research on your state government’s Web site. Some states automatically consider all students who meet the eligibility requirements, while others require you or your high school counselor to submit an application.

Other Scholarships

Any number of corporations, not-for-profit organizations, community groups, professional associations and individuals provide college scholarships. These awards are available locally and regionally as well as at the national level, but typically only go to a select handful of students.

  • Eligibility: Criteria for applying are as varied as the groups and individuals sponsoring these college scholarships, so do your research to find the opportunities that are a fit for you. These awards usually look at some combination of your grades, test scores, extracurricular interests and community involvement.
  • Reality: While you may be eligible to apply, only a small percentage of applicants typically receive the scholarships. The winners of these college scholarships come from a small, elite pool of applicants: The students with 4.0 GPAs and glowing test scores. What’s more, these are often one time awards worth only $1,000-$2,000. Merit aid, on the other hand, may be worth tens of thousands of dollars, may be renewed each year and is typically obtained by many more students.

There are a lot of opportunities for merit aid out there, and you may qualify for substantially more than you think. So take the time to look into what’s available, and explore the resources and additional financial aid information on Cappex. It all adds up, and it could go a long way toward putting your dream school within financial reach.