How Merit Aid Reduces College Costs

How does merit aid reduce the cost of college? And how do such scholarships relate to test preparation? Hang in there. It will take me a bit to explain everything.  And some of the most selective colleges can easily top $50,000 per year (or over $200,000 for four years). Who has that amount of cash lying around? And even if you do, it’s still a lot of money!

Many students and parents falsely assume that private college tuition is too expensive, impossibly expensive. And the raw numbers speak to that: the average cost of attendance at a four-year public college is $36,000, or over $130,000 for four years. What many students and parents fail to understand, however, is that most families do NOT pay full tuition (and neither should you).

Note: Many parents are NOT taking the time to educate themselves about the the financial aid process, resulting in overpaying for college. You will not make that mistake because you are smarter and more responsible than most parents (otherwise you would not be on this website!). Two books that I recommend are: Carol Stark's The Financial Aid Handbook and Lynn O'Shaughnessy's The College Solution, together maybe $40, about .05% of the cost of college!

What is Merit Aid?

In college financial aid, there are two distinct types of financial aid: need-based and merit-based. The first one, need-based, is mainly federal student loans and some tuition reduction that a student qualifies for based on family income. The second type, merit-based, does NOT take income into consideration, only academic merit as determined by SAT or ACT test scores and GPA. Merit-based aid consists mainly of tuition reductions (yay, no loans!) and is a GREAT deal.

Why Do Colleges Give Out Merit Aid?

These types of scholarships given out by colleges as an enticement for highly qualified students to enroll, and in the process, raise the academic "merit" of the institution. Therefore, schools, like the Ivy League and other highly selective private colleges, typically do not offer merit-based aid because students are willing to pay full price for attendance.

At many selective private colleges and universities the average merit scholarship offer is over $15,000 per year (yes, $60,000+ for four years). And lesser-known private colleges often attempt to attract strong students with even more attractive offers. And remember, merit scholarships are NOT based on a family’s income qualifications but on the quality of a student’s application. So how can a student grab such a scholarship? Most important factors: GPA and test scores.

How Do You Qualify?

Unlike need-based financial aid, which requires more paperwork, students do NOT need to submit any additional paperwork. Through the admissions process, the college decides who will be offered merit-based aid, and when a student is admitted to the college, the student will be informed of any merit aid scholarships.

Some colleges, like University of San Diego for example, even post a calculator on the website to help parents and students see how small increases in GPA and test scores can affect the price of college. One "clue" that a college offers merit aid is when the net-price calculators on the college website ask for GPA and test scores (the determining factors of merit-based aid).

List of Colleges Offering Merit Aid 

Intrigued? Here is a list of the Top 100 colleges committed to offering merit aid scholarships to students. When researching colleges or talking with your college counselor, make sure to target these types of schools if you desire a more affordable private education option.

How Test Prep Saves You Money

Higher SAT or ACT test scores will always lead to more merit aid offers than lower ones. So preparing for the SAT or ACT might cost a bit on the front end, if you strategize correctly, that test prep will pay off big time later. My wealthy clients know this, so they are willing to pay $2000-5000 for tutoring, knowing that they could end up paying $50,000-100,000 less for college. Not a bad investment!

For example, last year two of my students received substantial tuition reduction, one at a highly selective college in Texas and the other at a private university in Chicago, each amounting to over $100,000. And yes, both of these students came from families that would not have qualified for any need-based financial aid. This year one of my students received a full ride to a selective small liberal arts college in Southern California.

Keep Studying!

What do students, like those above, have in common? High scores on standardized tests and high GPAs. To be offered merit-based aid you must have both. Therefore, taking time to prepare for the SAT or ACT test pays off, literally. A small difference in scores, say a 30 on the ACT rather than a 28 can make a huge difference in scholarship packages. Don't forget to read my recommendations for best books for ACT prep and best books SAT prep so you can score higher and grab those extra funds!

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