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Merit Aid Explained–and a Few Surprises

Generally, colleges that reach out to students with merit aid offers are what Jeff Selingo calls “buyers.” However, these schools do not offer every applicant, or every admitted student, merit money. Instead, they use these awards strategically in order to yield high-performing students who have been admitted to even more selective schools. Many savvy families realize that their driven, academically-curious, creative students will maximize the college experience wherever they go, so they take these generous schools up on their offers. 

I tell my families that there are bright students at every college–this is just one reason why that’s true. 

Last year, one of my top students who had been admitted to several highly-competitive colleges chose an Honors College at a popular state university that offered her significant merit aid. Several years ago, I had an Ivy admit choose a full ride at a small liberal arts college that felt like home to her. She knew she would have a great experience and be successful there, and the money she saved went towards dental school.

Motivated students will do well in college and in their future careers.

That said, many colleges that deny most applicants do not give much, or any, merit awards to students who do not qualify for need-based financial aid. This year, there were a few surprises, especially from two popular schools that are “reaches” for many applicants. One college with a 27% admit rate offered $130,000 to one student and $86,000 to a second. Another school that admitted only 25% of applicants in 2024 and gives little non-need based merit aid offered a student $60,000. (Award amounts are over four years.)

I’m still waiting for 12 students to commit to their colleges, but three students have chosen schools they are excited about–ones that have also given them major merit awards that bring the cost of college down 30-50%.



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