Offsetting College Costs: What’s the Best Way to Find – And Obtain – Merit Aid?

By: Susan Kehl | Last Updated: September 22, 2022



Student Merit Aid

Most of us are too busy enjoying our baby’s day-to-day milestones to even think about college. Some of us may have had the foresight to purchase a 529 plan, a Florida Pre-Paid Tuition Plan, or another investment vehicle to lock in our future college tuition at today’s rates – but many of us did not. And college is a costly endeavor.

The process of evaluating colleges – and their costs – can be intimidating. According to a survey by Discover Student Loans, 66 percent of parents with college-bound kids are worried about paying for college – and most haven’t saved enough to do so. Princeton Review’s 2022 College Hopes & Worries Survey Report listed college costs as one of the “Biggest College Worries.”

Judi Robinovitz, a certified education planner with more than 40 years of experience, suggests looking into scholarships and other forms of financial aid – including merit aid – to help offset skyrocketing college costs.

“There are a variety of scholarships available, and there’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for – or the amount of money you can be awarded, ” she said. “Even if you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, you may be eligible for other valuable scholarships, including merit aid.”

What exactly is merit aid, and how can you and your teen locate colleges that award generous merit scholarships? Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding Merit Aid

Families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or CSS profile hoping for financial aid to help cover the costs of college. However, because this type of financial aid is ‘needs-based’ – meaning it’s based on a family’s demonstrated financial need – most families considered middle-class or above receive little, if any, financial aid.

Merit aid, on the other hand, is financial aid awarded to students for their academic or extracurricular achievements. It’s not based on financial need. Instead, merit scholarships are a way for colleges to attract high-achieving students. Achievements can be academic or involve accomplishments in music, athletics, community service, or other special interests.

In addition to college-sponsored merit aid, merit awards come from a variety of sources including corporations, local and community groups, religious organizations, and the National Merit Scholarship, to name a few. Sometimes alumni even offer merit scholarships as a way to show gratitude to their alma mater.

Will I Qualify for Merit Aid?

Generally speaking, you’re more likely to receive merit aid if your GPA and test scores fall within the top 25 percent of a college’s most recently admitted class. You may also qualify if the university considers you a valuable candidate in other ways. Do have a special talent or ability (are you a virtuoso trumpet player, cross-country all-star, noteworthy actress or artist, debate team captain…)? Perhaps you excel academically or have other unique achievements (did you win a math or science award, invent a new product, demonstrate outstanding leadership abilities…?). If the college is courting candidates for a major you’re interested in pursuing, you may also be eligible for a merit scholarship. So if you’re not class valedictorian, don’t despair – there are many ways to qualify for merit aid.

Determining Which Colleges Offer Merit Aid

Not all colleges offer merit aid, so research the colleges on your list by contacting their financial aid offices and reviewing their websites. Ivy league colleges don’t offer merit-based aid, nor do most other highly selective colleges – because they don’t have to. These institutions typically only admit the highest-achieving students, so outstanding merit is expected. Most Ivy League and elite universities do offer financial aid – in some cases, quite generous aid – but it’s based on family income.

Robinovitz, the founder of JRA Educational Consulting, says that Independent Educational Consultants are an invaluable resource who can connect you with the colleges that offer the most merit aid – and help you with the college application process from start to finish.

“An independent educational consultant or certified educational planner will help you create a strong application and a comprehensive financial aid package by helping you identify “financial safety schools” that are a great match for you,” she said. “We also advise you on extracurricular opportunities and curriculum choices that will improve your chances of receiving merit aid.”

Many online resources list colleges that offer merit aid, and some include links and eligibility requirements for various scholarships. For example, provides a database of available scholarships, including academic and merit aid. College Board offers an online scholarship search tool that can match you with a variety of potential scholarships.

Talk To Your Prospective Colleges

Once you’ve zeroed in on colleges that offer merit aid, it’s time to determine which ones offer generous merit scholarships. Contact each prospective college’s financial aid office, and check its website for information about the scholarships offered. Ask questions about past merit awards, including:

  • What percentage of students received merit aid last year?
  • How many merit scholarships does the college typically award annually?
  • What is the monetary amount of their typical merit scholarship?
  • What are the application process and eligibility criteria?
  • Does the college offer scholarships specific to students with your intended major?

A good way to estimate your tuition is to use the Net Price Calculator, generally available on individual college websites. Net Price Calculators allow you to enter information about yourself to determine what students in similar situations paid to attend that college the previous year after taking grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid into consideration.

The Merits of Merit Aid

In general, private colleges tend to offer more generous merit awards than public colleges because they typically have larger endowments. Plus, because private colleges tend to be considerably more expensive than public, they likely can – and will – offer more generous merit aid.

Most public universities also offer merit aid, so don’t rule them out. Also look into corporate-awarded scholarships, like the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship, and don’t forget scholarships offered by local and community organizations. In addition, students with specific talents may discover available merit scholarships in their desired fields. For example, students interested in graphic design might reach out to the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation. If you’re a musician, you might search for merit aid through organizations like the National Association for Music Education. Ask your guidance counselor about potential scholarships and – even more beneficial – speak with an independent educational consultant who specializes in college counseling.

Applying for Merit Aid

When it’s time to apply for college merit aid, get your facts straight. Many schools require that you apply by their priority deadlines to be considered for merit awards, so make sure you know – and meet – all deadlines. In most cases, you must meet and sustain specific eligibility requirements, like maintaining your GPA or staying involved with a certain activity.

Find out if the merit aid is awarded for one academic year, or if it’s for the duration of your college enrollment. In some cases, you may need to re-apply each year (just as you must annually submit an updated FAFSA). Most colleges automatically consider freshman applicants for merit awards, while some may require a separate application for certain scholarships. Some merit scholarships may require additional information, like essays and letters of recommendation, in addition to your application.

Carefully review the details for each scholarship or grant you’re interested in. Speak to advisors in college financial aid offices, read the admissions and financial aid information on college websites, and contact representatives for private scholarships to ensure that you fully understand the terms and conditions of the merit aid they’re offering.

You’re Not Alone

College is an expensive undertaking, but with advance planning, focused research – and the right scholarships – an affordable education can be within your reach. Robinovitz says that you don’t have to go it alone.

“Professional college consultants get to know each student personally, and we complete a thorough assessment of your academic and extracurricular interests to help you identify and highlight your passions,” she said. “We use this information to determine the colleges that best suit you, to create a strong financial aid package, and to locate – and help you obtain – appropriate merit scholarships that help maximize the amount of money you receive for college.”

Need additional information about merit aid or the college application process? Speak with an educational consultant today

Topics: College Admission


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