In these days of financial aid volatility and soaring cost of attendance at U.S. colleges, merit-based financial aid is becoming more and more rare. Many colleges, particularly state colleges and universities, no longer offer any kind of aid based solely on grades, or academic “merit”.
In addition, many of the more elite schools, including Ivy League institutions and other selective colleges such as Bates and Swarthmore, don’t offer merit based financial aid at all. After a fashion, the entire admissions process at such schools is merit based: if you are accepted to the school, you get in. Given the need-blind admissions policies that many selective colleges employ, once you’re in, if you need financial aid, you get it. So, even if you have stellar grades, the decision about whether you receive financial aid is still ultimately going to rest on your financial need.
On the other hand, there are still a number of private colleges out there that offer a substantial amount of academic merit aid. Because such schools tend to be a little less well-known than the Ivies and other institutions of the storied elite, offering merit scholarships is one way they are able to remain competitive: the practice helps them to attract academically superior students who may otherwise apply to better known schools.
One difficulty that you may face if you’re hoping for school-based aid to reward your academic achievements is that such aid tends to be pretty competitive. You may have to apply for the award as you would any scholarship, or in some cases, there may be an actual on-campus competition that involves interviews or even intellectual challenges.
Notwithstanding the existence of non-campus based aid, such as scholarships and the National Merit Scholar program, colleges today tend to focus the financial aid they have to give more on students with financial need than those with superior academic credentials. This doesn’t mean, however, that such aid no longer exists or isn’t out there somewhere. You need just need to work a little harder to find it; and if you’re basing your college attendance on getting some sort of merit-based aid, you will need to be willing to limit your choice of colleges to those that still offer such awards.
Colleges that do offer campus based merit aid tend to administer such aid through the admissions office rather than the financial aid office. This is because admissions officials tend to be the ones who look at the criteria — GPA and ACT/SAT scores — on which such aid is based. Students who are eligible for merit based aid are usually informed of such at the time of their acceptance to the school.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many schools offer merit-based aid through individual departments, as well. While there may not be a general scholarship fund for gifted students, scholarships may exist for business or math majors that are administered by the departments, themselves. Thus, if you’ve managed to pinpoint some schools that interest you, it may be worth contacting the department of your major — if you have any idea at all what you want to study — to see if it offers any merit awards.
Ultimately, you may ask whether all that hard work and studying in high school was worth it if you’re just going to have to pay for college like everyone else, anyway. While the answer is going to vary from individual to individual, the empirical answer is probably more yes than no. For one, better grades give you a wider range of college choices and opportunities. They also afford you a shot at outside scholarships and awards that will help you cover the cost of whatever school you choose to attend.
Finally, you must remember that the notion of “financial need” varies from school to school. Let’s say your grades and test scores are good enough to get you into Stanford, for example. From a Stanford standpoint, students who come from families with incomes under six figures have financial need — and at Stanford prices, that is not being patronizing. So, even if you may not qualify for much traditional aid, your grades could land you at a school that will guarantee your degree completion regardless of your ability to pay.