The College Search: What Is Merit Aid?

Hear tips on picking a college from Liz Eshleman, director of College Planning and Placement at Devon Preparatory School.

May 12, 2010 7:31:38 AM PDT
Merit Aid is money a college awards new students, based mainly on exemplary academic performance in high school.

Usually, the aid comes in the form of annual deductions off the regular tuition cost, and is awarded for the entire four or five years a student plans to attend. In other words, you're not handed a check, but your tuition bill is reduced by the award amount. Typical Merit Aid awards range from $5,000 a year to $10,000 a year, and even $20,000 a year, with the higher amounts being fewer in number and harder to get. Colleges may also offer a so-called "free ride" to a few students, which basically means that all tuition is covered. Additional costs, like room and board, meal plans and bookstore bills (which collectively, can total more than $10,000 a year) may or may not be covered.


A canvass of college websites will tell you that overall, Merit Aid is not as widespread as it once was, as many campuses have moved toward a more "need-based" aid scheme. But most universities offer at least some merit awards and as you can see from the above dollar amounts, they can be a big help in controlling costs. Many colleges automatically consider every applicant for these awards, but some may require that you apply for merit aid or other monetary in-school scholarships, and it's worth checking a school's website for details.

Grades count, but that's not all

Aside from grades and test scores, Merit Aid is also occasionally tied to excellence in extra-curricular or out-of-school activities that predict a candidate's likely success in his or her prospective major. For example, my daughter's award was partly the result of the link between her desired degree (Zoo Science) and her years of volunteer wheels at a zoo. In my son's case, awards were more directly tied to SAT scores and GPA, with his application essay and extra-curricular activities playing a supporting role.

Generally, you won't find out whether you've qualified for Merit Aid, or how much you're getting, until you get your acceptance package. An award letter will be included in that packet, detailing the specifics. But there are two ways to get an idea of whether you may be eligible in advance. First, if your student's GPA and SAT/ACT scores are either above or near the high end of the previous year's freshman class, the chances of aid are good. This assumes the school you're canvassing has a Merit Aid program with more than just a few awards available. You can find this information by searching for a given college on Second, admissions officers will sometimes discuss your odds of winning Merit Aid during a face-to-face meeting when you visit their campus. Officers at several schools we visited were able to respond either positively or negatively on the Merit Aid issue, based on a verbal report of my kids' grades and extracurricular strong points. In my daughter's case, she was flat-out told she was in line for a certain level of aid, and when the offer came through, she actually got a little more than originally discussed. Every school whose officials spoke encouragingly to my son came through with aid in varying amounts. Others weren't so supportive, but still offered aid, and you should not be discouraged by stories of how tough it is to win an award, if your student has a high GPA and compares well with a college's previous incoming class. It may still work out.

Your aid may not be carved in cement

You should be aware that the majority of Merit Aid comes with strings attached. In most cases, a student must maintain a certain college GPA to keep the award. A student is usually assessed at the end of each full year in school. Low grades can cause a forfeiture of either part or all of the money at that time. In other words, most merit awards are firm for year one, but are linked to performance after that. The GPA threshold will vary from school to school, and from major to major. In some cases, a 3.0 may be required, while a 2.5 may be enough to satisfy in other cases. Either way, winning an award can put some extra pressure on a new student, should early grades slide below the required levels. Also, some rewards only remain intact as long as the student remains in school full-time, which means taking a semester off may not be allowed. It's definitely a good idea for you and your student to become informed on these specifics before you accept an award.

It's worth noting that since merit awards are granted to top academic candidates, award winners usually have no trouble meeting the requirements. Furthermore, financial aid officers and academic advisors are often willing to work with students who are on the bubble. But it's a good idea to ask about a school's common practice in cases where a student is struggling, especially if the loss of aid would make a given university difficult to afford.

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