Gas station without pumps

2012 May 31

Merit scholarships

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:09
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My son is just finishing his sophomore year of high school, so I’m spending some of my time thinking about getting him into college.  The two main concerns at this point are finding a college that is a good fit for him and paying for it.  We’ve been saving for college since he was born, and he is an only child, so we’re in better shape financially than most.  Still, we had been counting on the public universities as a reasonably priced option, and that has been getting gradually less realistic as the state support for higher education collapses around the country. Because our savings mean that we are not likely to get much need-based aid (except at very expensive schools), we’ve been hoping that he could get some merit-based aid, which is gradually coming back into favor after a few decades of schools only providing need-based aid and athletic scholarships.

One blog that I’ve been reading recently is Cost of College, which collects news items about college finances and discusses them.  Sometimes the author (Grace) is a little too easily swayed by propaganda pieces (like the misleading statistics in ‘changes in tuition were not driven by changes in state appropriations’), but she often finds interesting news items and web pages.

One item she pointed to was a CBS news article from August 2011 about merit scholarships: University Reveals the Secrets of Winning Merit Scholarships, a report by Lynn O’Shaughnessy on analysis by the University of Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid of the merit aid given to the incoming class in Fall 2011.  This was not a policy statement or guidelines, but a post hoc analysis of what differences various factors made in the final award amounts.  Following journalistic tradition, Ms. O’Shaughnessy quoted her source as if she had done an interview, but did not point to the real source document that had more information.  It appears to have been from a blog post by Dean Jonathan Burdick: “What kind of scholarship can I get?” posted 1 June 2011.

There were a few surprises, like that having serious conversations with the admissions and financial aid counselors were worth about $3000 in financial aid, but each A on a report card was worth only $62 and each 10 points on total SAT was worth about $115, for a max of about $4100.   Note that the recommended pre-admissions interview was only worth about $250—so the $3000 comes from going well beyond the normal level of discussion. It seems that negotiation skills are as important as academic ability in getting merit aid.

Interestingly, challenging courses were more valuable than high grades (though this might be because only those students with high grades were considered for admission—if everyone has nearly all As, the small differences in grades might not have much predictive value for amount of merit aid).

Letters of recommendation were important (having excellent letters added $1800).  Timeliness in completing the application was worth $400.  Filling out both FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid Profile was worth $2500 (it is not clear from the CBS reporting whether this was an average of all recipients or a regression coefficient, but the original blog post made it clear that there was $2500 more merit aid for those filling out the forms).  The FAFSA form is free, but the CSS/Financial Aid Profile costs $25 plus $16/college (though some colleges provide a “fee payment code” to cover the $16 reporting fee).  Still, if filling out the form ups the merit-based aid by $800 as Dean Burdick reports, it would be worthwhile (unless it also resulted in decreases in need-based aid).

Of course, Rochester is a high-price institution with a sticker price of $54k, so their typical merit aid of $10k–$12k still leaves the price at a high $42k–$44k.  It is not clear whether other universities have merit aid policies that favor the same students that Rochester favors, and lower-priced public universities generally have little merit-based aid.  I suspect that we should be planning on a minimum of $30k per year, after need-based and merit-based aid, and possibly as high as $45k.  So we’d need savings of $120k–$180k to avoid taking out loans. It seems that a bachelor’s degree now costs the student about a year or two of  faculty salary—it makes me wonder at what point it will become cheaper and more effective to cut out the university administration and hire top-notch tutors directly.

What is clear is that reference letters and direct contact with the admissions and financial aid officers are worth more than I would have expected, and grades worth less than I thought.  It may be worthwhile for my son to cultivate some adult contacts who could write him good recommendation letters (his theater teachers, science fair mentors, …).


  1. Wow—that blog post is startlingly honest and refreshing revelation of the inner workings of an admissions office. Thanks for sharing this.

    Comment by John Burk — 2012 May 31 @ 10:57 | Reply

  2. This thread at College Confidential may provide helpful information on people’s experience with merit aid. The thread began in 2005 and currently is 51 pages long. I’d probably start at the end and work backwards.

    Merit aid is essentially tuition discounting for students that a college is willing to attract. So, if you have top level grades and test scores but choose to go to a school from a lower tier, then you can increase your chance of merit aid.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 May 31 @ 11:06 | Reply

  3. Good thoughts- we are dealing with this right now too. Getting ready to begin the application process next semester. Thanks for posting this with the articles and links!

    Comment by Merit K — 2012 May 31 @ 14:48 | Reply

  4. Thank you for such a good writeup- it’s very interesting. I agree that a good recommendation letter is invaluable to the application process. I also agree that culturing positive relationships with mentors is important for your son’s development. However, in my opinion your rationale is backward. The connections he makes with adults will help him learn new material and become an adult. If it works out for this person to write a recommendation letter down the road, then that’s just icing on the cake. I frequently see this with my own students, they want to join a particular club or group primarily because it might help get them into college- their actual interest in the material is secondary. Just my $0.02… best of luck.

    Comment by Chris Gosling — 2012 May 31 @ 15:29 | Reply

    • Oh—I agree with you. The only stuff my son is doing to “get into college” is making sure that he has the coursework to satisfy University of California’s a–g requirements and taking the appropriate standard tests (SAT, pSAT/NMSQT, AP tests, SAT IIs, maybe ACT).

      He gets involved in activities because he wants to, not to get into college. My point was just that he should think about what adults he knows outside the family who would be in a position to write letters of recommendation. There may be others (such as college faculty teaching classes he plans to take) that would be good future letter writers. We’ve not paid any attention to identifying good letter writers, but over the next year we need to.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 May 31 @ 18:03 | Reply

  5. I am on a committee that selects students for a merit scholarship, a fairly large one. We look at recommendation letters, GPA, SATs, and outside activities as the main criteria. The outside activities have to show that the students is interested in a career in scientific research. Making contact with the financial aid office has no bearing on our decision, but may mean that the student becomes aware of the scholarship.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2012 June 1 @ 15:56 | Reply

    • I’m sure that many (even most) merit awards are not based on frequency of contact with the admissions office, but those contacts seem to be predictive of a large boost in merit aid. Whether that is from being encouraged to apply for special awards or just the squeaky wheel getting the grease is not clear.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 June 1 @ 20:02 | Reply

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