College financing: merit vs. need - based aid

Every once in a while, you’ll hear someone say that their doctor’s friend’s nephew got into Princeton on a full football scholarship. While it may be true that they got into Princeton on a full scholarship — I can tell you that it’s not because of football! There are tons of myths and untruths floating around about financial aid, so today I’d like to take the opportunity to decode some of them for you. Let's start with some basics. There are two primary kinds of financial aid: need-based and merit-based.

Merit-based aid is the kind of scholarship awarded to students whose achievements (i.e. merit) in academic, extracurricular, and athletic pursuits make universities want them! When a Hermiona Educational Consultant was applying to the University of Minnesota, she received a Benson Scholarship (for several thousand dollars a year) for her academic excellence. Some students receive full scholarships, often for outstanding athletic or musical performance; universities often offer this when they have strong orchestras or sports teams. When applying to a school, it’s worth looking into what scholarships are offered: perhaps you’ll be a good fit!

It’s particularly important to note that many top schools (i.e. the Ivy League, for example) don’t offer merit-based aid — all admits to these schools are at the top of their class and have dozens of outstanding extracurricular achievements. Their “merit-based scholarship,” so to speak, is admittance to Stanford, Harvard, or Yale in the first place. The more selective a school, generally, the fewer merit-based scholarships they have: for example, one of our ECs was one of only 20 students accepted to Boston University’s Kilachand Honors College on a full scholarship. (BU’s acceptance rate at the time was a bit less than 30%.)

Merit-based aid is often — though far from always — combined with need-based aid. When applying to university (if you would like to be considered for financial aid), you will need to submit several forms, such as your tax returns and an online document called the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The university’s financial aid office will use these documents to assess how much aid they are willing to give you. Many private universities (i.e. ones with large endowments) claim to provide 100% of demonstrated financial need. Many public schools offer students applying from within the state “in-state tuition,” i.e. a reduced price at the University of Minnesota for students from Minnesota.

Some universities will offer both kinds of aid to students. If the financial aid office deems that the student needs a certain amount of money and is outstanding in math, for example, the university might offer them both merit and need-based financial aid. Remember that many top schools offer ONLY need-based financial aid — many, however, say that they over 100% of demonstrated need. Keep these nuances in mind when applying — more blogs on this topic to come.

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