Sharp increases in tuition for public and private colleges reduce the affordability of higher education and impose financial stress on some families who seek ways to fund college degrees. When families focus on the sticker price of one semester’s tuition and multiply that price by the number of semesters a degree program requires, the need to identify financial aid becomes apparent. One way that students and parents can better tolerate high tuition costs is for the students to earn merit-based scholarships.

Purpose of Merit Scholarships

From a student’s perspective, a merit scholarship is an achievement award granted to students who excel in particular areas. For example, merit scholarships might award achievement in academics or athletics. From the perspective of a company that sponsors a merit scholarship, the scholarship guarantees the availability of future employees with particular skills. For example, a car manufacturer might fund a student’s college education if the student commits to a certain field of study, such as engineering, in preparation to work in the sponsor’s industry. From the perspective of the schools that offer merit scholarships, the educational stipend enables them to attract great students, which positively affects the college’s ranking and faculty recruitment efforts.

Qualifying for Merit Scholarships

Students with the ability and dedication required to earn top grades and admission exam scores can compete for top-paying merit scholarships. Depending on the school and the scholarship’s sponsor, these student attributes might be combined with other characteristics, such as a demonstrated commitment to the student’s community and participation in student government, to evaluate the student’s merit. Other characteristics that a school or scholarship sponsor might consider include the student’s membership in a minority group or military service.

National Merit Scholarship Competition

Colleges and universities, as well as private organizations, grant scholarships to recipients identified by the National Merit Scholarship Competition. To be considered for a scholarship, high school students must meet certain program requirements and take the SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Based on test scores, 50,000 applicants are identified and their eligibility for the scholarships is confirmed by the students’ high school principals. After the records review by the principals, about one-third of the students are named semifinalists, while the other students become applicants for scholarships granted by other sponsors. After the semifinalists complete additional requirements, the NMS organization selects competition finalists from which the winners of National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships and college-sponsored scholarships are chosen.

The Value of Merit Scholarships

Rather than focus on a school’s advertised tuition, room and board, books and other living expenses for a school year, it’s important that a family calculate what they will pay upon receiving a merit scholarship. For example, in 2013, the cost to attend the University of Southern California for two semesters is $68,865, but freshman who receive merit scholarships can decrease this figure by about $20,000. At Tulane, where the full price is about $47,000 for 2013, 35 percent of the students receive merit scholarships, which range from $10,000 to $30,000 per year. At Southern Methodist University, full price is $43,800, but 31 percent receive merit scholarships. The financial circumstances look much improved when the actual costs, rather than standard costs, are considered.

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About the Author

Billie Nordmeyer works as a consultant advising small businesses and Fortune 500 companies on performance improvement initiatives, as well as SAP software selection and implementation. During her career, she has published business and technology-based articles and texts. Nordmeyer holds a Bachelor of Science in accounting, a Master of Arts in international management and a Master of Business Administration in finance.