An Email from a Disillusioned Mom

I received an email yesterday from a disillusioned mom, who wanted to share what she has learned after receiving her oldest daughter’s financial aid packages. I can totally sympathize with this mother and I want to pass on Lisa’s observations before I comment on them.

After receiving Lisa’s email, I sent her a message asking what kind of merit aid her child received. Her daughter got the following:

Butler University: $0.

Southern Methodist University: $7,000 a year.

Baylor University: She only said that the award was somewhat better than SMU.

The daughter got into University of Texas, Austin, which is affordable for the family, and she is still waiting from Rice. Washington University in St. Louis waitlisted her.

Where’s the Merit Money?

Here is what Lisa wrote:

1. If you are in the upper middle class economically be prepared to pay almost full price tuition at all schools applied.  It does not matter if your daughter takes 5 AP classes, have straight A’s for four years at a competitive HS, 32 on your ACT, on a swim team, plays in the top school concert band, and is involved in the token clubs.

2. The middle class is stuck with a few options: state schools, junior colleges, and lots of debt.

3. Your child IS penalized if his/her parents make a decent salary AND save like they were supposed to for 18 years for college.

4. Your college investments DO NOT keep up with the rising cost of college.

5. Heaven help anyone who has two kids in college at the same time who makes a decent salary because aide will NOT come your way, regardless how smart your child is.

6. Don’t read all those college books telling you have a shot at merit aid.  It’s too low or does not exist.

7. Have your child become a super star athlete.  That is your only chance!

 My Reaction…..

I do feel for this mom. Her daughter is bright and it’s understandable that the family would assume she would earn a fistful of merit scholarships.  That’s what I would have assumed!

I am floored that Butler didn’t award this smart child a merit scholarship. When I looked at the university’s stats, the vast majority of freshman receive some kind of award. My only thought is that Butler thought that this Texan wasn’t serious about attending because she was applying to schools that have a far higher academic standing – Wash U in St. Louis, UT in Austin and Rice. Schools do look at where an applicant is also applying.

I am also surprised that SMU didn’t give the girl more money. When I looked at the school’s most recent Common Data Set, it clearly showed that many affluent students, who wouldn’t qualify for financial aid, got merit awards, which the Common Data set refers to as non-need-based aid. The  average award was a healthy one – $17,268. I’m sharing the relevant box from the school’s Common Data Set:

Lisa’s daughter might have been penalized because she is from Texas, as is SMU. I don’t know if this is the case, but some schools really crave geographic diversity and are willing to offer greater rewards to students from distant states. (Of course, that didn’t work with Butler!)

College Admission Realities

I wrote the rest of this post before I learned where Lisa’s daughter was attending.  Only some of it will be relevant to the Texas family.

1. Nearly all schools in this country do give merit awards to affluent teenager, who are as gifted as Lisa’s daughter. There was a time when that wasn’t true — only low and middle-income students received help from colleges. The college rankings, however, changed all that.  To understand why affluent students routinely get money, I’d urge you to read a post that I wrote in February (this is one of my favorite posts):

How College Rankings Can Hurt You

I need to add a caveat. Plenty of super desirable, rich students tend to apply to the very schools that will not give them any merit scholarships. Those institutions include the Ivy League members, as well as other highly elite schools. Look at the top schools in US News & World Report’s college rankings in the national university and liberal arts colleges to see what some of those schools are. These institutions don’t have to give awards to rich students because they flock to their campuses without any carrots.

3. You are more likely to be penalized for your salary rather than your savings. Your income plays a huge part in whether a family receives need-based financial aid. On the other hand, less than 4% of families have stockpiled enough money in their college and taxable accounts to have ANY impact on their Expected Family Contribution. Here is a post that I wrote on this topic:

Will Your Savings Hurt Your Financial Aid Chances?

4. I agree with Lisa that the return on college investments has not been keeping up with the cost of college. Parents have also sabotaged their returns (as well as their retirement account performance) by jumping out of the market when it’s already plummeted and then returning when the market has already clocked great gains. That’s how most people market time.

5. I have to disgree with this observation. For financial aid purposes, it’s better to have two children in college at the same time. Heck, triplets is even better. Why? The FAFSA formula cuts your Expected Family Contribution in about half when you have two in college.  So if your EFC is $25,000 for one child and the next year a second child heads to college, the EFC for each would drop to $12,500.

The PROFILE gives you credit for the number of children who are still dependents. You won’t get penalized if you space your kids farther apart, but you also don’t get as big a drop on your EFC per child.

I wish I had known this when my husband and I were deciding when to have children — I would have tried to have my kids born two years apart instead of three. My kids were in college together for one year and it saved me about $7,500.

6. Most schools give out merit scholarships. In fact, at private colleges and universities, about 88% of students receive a merit award. Clearly, schools are not reserving this money just for the “A” students.

Public universities have also gotten into the act. According to a study by The Education Trust, state institutions award at least half of merit awards to affluent student. This is, by the way, a controversial practice, especially when you consider

7. Just about the worst thing you can do is assume that a gifted athlete is going to earn an athletic scholarship. About 2% of high school seniors win sports scholarships at NCAA schools. The average scholarship, by the way, is less than $11,000. (I added a chapter in the my upcoming second edition of The College Solution on athletic scholarships.)

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution, which is now available for preorders.


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  1. We as a middle class military family likewise had a son this year, last of 5, get overlooked with exceptional grades/tests/athletics. While I do believe the standards for getting into college are going in directions that make merit sadly less vital, I would also ask those in this thread if their kids have ever considered serving their country for a few years and then getting a GI Bill that provides 4 debt free years of college? My middle son recently graduated from Monterey Linguistics/language school—compliments of the Air Force…was getting paid the whole time while learning a language to translate and bought his first car without debt during his first year! What is it that keeps parents from considering trades or the military as options to help their kids or themselves from mortgaging their futures???

  2. I agree 100% with “disillusioned mom!” My daughter is a national merit scholar with a 2280 on the SAT, 4.0 unweighted GPA, 4.7 weighted GPA, president of Spanish Honor Society, two years of sports, works 20 hours a week, significant community service and church youth group/mission trips, and belongs to many organizations at her school. She should be getting free rides, right? Ha ha – not even close! We will pay for her college and feel very blessed to have the means to do so – but our income level doesn’t tell the whole story. My husband (our primary breadwinner) has an incurable form of Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and his future income is uncertain at best. Therefore, we cannot afford to shell out the private school education my daughter would undeniably prefer over the public college education she will instead receive. I am completely disillusioned by this whole college application/scholarship process and wish the best of luck to everyone else out there.

  3. Uh, this is just not true. We have two kids in college, and are in the process of finding a school for a third. Colleges are raising costs, because they know they will get it from families who put their entire futures in debt and a federal government that hands out money to many who will never pay. . The FAFSA expected contribution is absurd for a family who actually works hard, makes a little money, and saves. When we amended our FAFSA to reflect a $20,000 DECREASE in our income, the EFC only went down $5,000 . What a joke. So the calculation presented above is wishful thinking. Add that to the excruciatingly high taxes and Obamacare premiums the government says we can afford to pay, and we are in the negative. . Our kids are bright, have great grades, leadership, jobs etc. There is no real help out there for them. The “find the right fit” for your college student advice is maddening. So our kids who worked harder than anyone else around them, and are true “scholars” , really do not have the luxury of finding the best fit for college.

  4. I am valedictorian at my high school (4.0 GPA) and I got a 33 on the ACT. I was really focused throughout high school on getting a scholarship for sports and was finally offered one this year. I accepted it and was thrilled- until I received my scholarship offer. Out of the ~$26,000 offered, $17,000 was for academics, and only $2,000 was for my sport. Disappointing, but I’m attending a DII school and I know there aren’t that many athletic scholarships to give.
    Stay in school, kids: don’t value sports over grades.

  5. My daughter graduated with a 97.5 average 1980 on SAT’s., She was an All-National vocalist as well as having some community service. We did not qualify for any financial aid.

    Although she got into all the highest ranked NYS Universities, as well as University of Delaware, Ithaca College among others, Most offered her none to little aid. She decided she wanted to graduate debt free.

    SHe chose a small local school Molloy College, business school. She is currently finishing up her 4 th year it’s an honors student in the business school. Her classes are small (5 -25 students) and she gets lots of individual attention. She is receiving over 80% financial aid.Tuition is costing less than $ 6000 a year including books and fees.

    Since Sophomore year they have helped her find internships. She is currently earning over $15,000 yearly while attending school. In addition, she has been offered an internship with a big 4 account firm.

    While her school doesn’t have a big name, She is recieving a wonderful education. Don’t rule out the smaller less elite schools.

  6. Our family does not qualify for any aid. We could spend $65,000 per year for college for our child if we drastically changed our lifestyle and our housing and forgot about saving for retirement. Our daughter is very bright with good grades and amazing test scores. Many schools are sending her letters saying they give full rides or full tuition to National Merit Scholars. She of course wants an elite school that does not give merit money. We have told her “no way.” She has an in-state school budget and that is it. If she goes to our flagship state school and works hard she can have any career she wants. It would be ridiculous to spend an extra 30K per year just because she liked some other campus better. If our family made 100k per year I would have her apply only at top tier schools that meet 100 percent of financial need. The brochure Princeton sent yesterday said if your income was $120,000 or less you get full tuition plus 20 percent of your living expenses in aid. We would get zero. Top tier schools are not an option for my child. She has no money and we aren’t selling the house! She will be attending a second tier school.

  7. I have read several comments that suggest underprivileged college applicants are products of parents that are poor planners, sloths, lesser qualified etc. The truth of the matter is that those who can pay, should pay. Most comments from people suggesting they have been treated unfairly are earning incomes of 100k a year and more, yet they complain that they’re cars are old and they’re expenses are great. Maybe you’re not as responsible as you think.

    Perhaps your expenses are a result of your own poor choices and you probably should have made better ones. Be happy you can pay for your child/children to attend a college somewhere, be it a local college or out of state university. Your feelings of entitlement do not make it so.

    I am appalled at the marginalizing comments you make about people because you’re too selfish to pay for your own child’s college education. My household income is less than 80k a year, we pay out of pocket to offset our daughter’s education less the bright futures scholarship, a scholarship from our church, and one other scholarship she received. We sacrificed and paid for Florida Prepaid for a 4 year University. She had a 28 on the act and 1790 on the SAT, and was an IB student who entered college last year with multiple credits. I’m grateful for that! I’m not angry with the world and wouldn’t trade places with families who struggle every day to make ends meet for a second.

  8. Mom has it right. Meaningful merit for academically high performing kids from the middle and upper middle class are not to be found. The schools are on a mission of social engineering where underperforming students from socioeconomic disadvantaged backgrounds are preferred. This is borne out in the acceptance statistics where many Caucasian and Asian kids who amply qualify are not chosen over vastly less qualified students. The money system is designed to elevate the poor and generally lesser qualified and attract the most wealthy who can pay to offset the costs and build endowments. It’s the great middle that is punished for working hard and playing by the rules. For those who argue there are alternatives, I say why is it that a white or Asian kid has to settle for a lower tier institution while others are granted access to the best schools in the name of some perceived notion of equity. It’s disgraceful. I thought these were institutions of learning, but the truth is they are merely part of the social engineering framework propagated by zealots. The recent lawsuit by Asian organizations against Harvard makes the point exceedingly well.

    1. I have to disagree with you . The students who have a huge advantage are rich students who have had the opportunities that most students never dream of. The vast vast majority of students at these schools are rich. The biggest affirmative action program is for rich students.


    2. Joe,
      This is 2 years after yr post. We are Asian. My daughter 4.7 GPA (weighted), 35 ACT, serious classical musician (played on tour in Europe etc.), raised 1000s of $s for an orphanage in a foreign country ….. went to an elite private school where many of the students were extremely well connected. Long story short, in the name of holistic admissions, she was passed over for
      A. a student who was not even in the top 20% of their grade bc of legacy (Stanford),
      B. Student who iwas not even in the top 15% of the grade, the granddaughter of nationally renowned superstar academics (president of major universities) daughter of a trustee of the school (Princeton & Harvard).
      C. A student who was decidedly in the middle of the grade, son of a leading sports personality in our area (Princeton)

      So this notion that it’s only minorities and first gen that are benefiting from these preferences is NOT based in fact. Before us Asians get used as tools of right wing groups to fit their agenda of dismantling access to these institutions via affirmative action (which is NOT “quotas” as the right likes to call it), let’s put a full and complete stop to
      B. Faculty/staff kids/grandkids
      C. Donor kids
      D. ATHletes.

      I doubt that will happen, these right wing groups themselves are probably stuffed w people who benefited like the ones I’ve listed.

  9. i have to say i disagree with the statement most private colleges give merit aid. my daughter was accepted to wash u of st louis and applied for all the merit scholarships she could there- she has a 4.0 GPA, 35 ACT, all 5’s on her AP’s, numerous extracurricular activities and community service, and is a working free lance writer for an online international tech magazine. she received not one penny of merit aid. we were told there are just so many eligible kids – it was very hard to choose, but she would get nothing. very disappointing and although she has her heart set on going there, it may not be possible for us given the cost. we make too much to qualify for need based aid, but 60,000/year is not easy to do.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Your daughter could have gotten merit aid at probably 99% of schools in the country. The problem is that very bright, affluent students tend to focus on the same small group of schools and these institutions don’t have to give merit aid and, for those that do, there is stiff competition.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. After going through this with my children, I don’t fully agree with #4 above. The reason is what someone can afford or perceive has value and what the parties making decisions on needs based financial aid do not necessarily match. In my particular case having 2 in college cost be 2x – still no financial aid.

    I am not wealthy. I have a respectable income and my wife also works so that have a good life. But, we are not wealthy at all. I drive a 5 year old Honda Accord (does this make me wealthy?)

    The EFC for us is nearly one of our salaries (less taxes). This is expected? Are you kidding me?

    Spending this kind of money ($45k to $65k)) for education is reckless. Don’t do it.

    My GPA=4.0, 3 AP class – honors everything else, extra-curricular activity, leadership everything daughter is going to community college for 2 years and then state university for 2 years. We are not spending $200k+ for no extra value. That is stupid.

    I did the same. Three of the people who report to me come from Ivies (2 Columbia, 1 Cornell). They are smart. I am smarter.

  11. I keep seeing Vanderbilt mentioned as being great with packages. Perhaps we were just unlucky. My daughter was accepted while her father was out of work (had been out for 2 plus years) and I was working in a non-profit (low payment/high value) job. Based on our income in their financial aid pamphlets we expected to pay very little that initial year. Far from so. In fact the EFC was my entire salary.

  12. I think doing your research and applying to schools that are known for big endowments and good financial aid packages to middle class families really helps. We are in Texas and my daughter applied to a variety of public and private schools, including UT, Texas State, Vanderbilt, University of Houston and a private music conservatory. She was lucky enough to get into Vandy and they offered her a substantial financial aid package every year – about 5/6 the cost of attendance. Her offers at the public schools (except for U of H, which is very good with financial aid) were considerably less. Her debt upon graduation will be about 8% of her total cost of attendance, and far less than the national average, and she will also benefit from a strong alumni network and name recognition. Vanderbilt is one of several private schools in the country that offers a “no loan after EFC” promise to incoming students. My oldest son had a similar experience at Tulane, although their no-loan offer has income limits, and he graduated with more debt than my daughter. It is also possible to ask for reconsideration of a financial aid award, as my son did, based on his higher second ACT score and improved writing samples. This saved him $20k in total debt. Websites like allow parents to share information about schools offering substantial financial aid awards to middle class families. I would never have thought to have my son appeal his financial aid award at Tulane if I’d not gained the information from other CC parents. There are ways around the college cost issue; one must do research and get creative. It’s not easy, but doable if you plan early and your kid has good stats.

  13. Perhaps it is wrong for any person to be forced to pay for something that another person desires. That would be slavery. Higher income people are forced to pay higher tuition so that lower income people can pay less. Perhaps if every one paid the same tuition fees world be less for all. People could then plan their lives accordingly and make hard choices about where to spend their money.

    1. Exactly how we feel. We’ve worked hard, my husband has a high salary and earns every penny in the stress and responsibility he carries. It feels like we are just paying a high tuition to subsidize others tuition. This is communism, why work hard and take on extra stress/responsibility anymore, it doesn’t get you any further! Why be responsible and not incur debt, save college funds and a healthy emergency savings? The people who are irresponsible and don’t save, overspend and incur debt will be rewarded. In fact, even though statistically speaking, we are rich (ha! You should check out my 11 yr old minivan…another unfortunate responsible choice, had I been smart and bought a new Cadillac Escalade every 5 yrs I’d probably be getting some nice financial aid now) we cannot sent our children to anything but our state schools because we cannot afford out of state tuitions. Even the public schools often range between $50 & $55k for out of state residents. I wish way back when my kids were one and three yrs. old we’d picked our state residency by the quality of their public colleges. I never dreamed we’d have no other options and would have lived somewhere else. FYI, another fun fact, if you are separated you only have to file one parent’s income. My sister did this, her and her husband stayed separated conveniently for 8 yrs while they put two kids through college, then got the divorce. Consequently, they paid almost nothing because they listed dad as parent kids lived with (they didn’t, they lived with mom who earned a whopping $200,000/yr. and never had to claim on FAFSA, only listed dad’s meager $40k salary!! What a steal! For some reason, legally both parents are financially responsible for kids when parents are married or divorced but not separated? How can this make sense to anyone??

  14. I have well into 6 figures of debt for my two kids who have graduated from college and still have more kids to go. We filled out the FAFSA every year and got nothing. A small pittance from one of the schools and another pittance from another. I am talking a thousand here, and a thousand there. So for my kids to go to school and not end up with crushing debt, I took it on. We are not rich but we are not impoverished. Just middle class professionals with half-way decent jobs. We brought home about 150K at that time, qualified for no help, and two kids in school at the same time, and even though one was an excellent, even brilliant student, he got no non-need based help.

    It is complete fantasy that there is help for people who pay their bills and own a home. We got nothing and I will be paying it off for the next 30 years.

  15. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog is in the very same niche as yours and my visitors would truly benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Thanks!

  16. HSR or intercity transit would have a bonus of not only increasing transit options, but it would reduce air congestion since people would have a viable alternative to taking commuter jets to and from DC or Boston from NY or Philly. Rail would put those commuters/travelers at a city center in less time than airlines would, and would be a cost benefit to a wider number of people, particularly since the air traffic system nationally is constrained by congestion at the NYC area airports. Reduce the numbers of flights that are regional in nature, and you increase on-time performance nationally, and create a more effective air travel paradigm while building out a true HSR system.

  17. Hello,

    My sister is a senior in high school and has decided to wait a year to go to college. She is an excellent student and an all around over-achiever. In addition to going to school she began working this year to help my mom with pay bills and now she’s burnt out. She has not applied to any colleges nor has she taken the SAT or the ACTs. It’s a crying shame! I really feel that she would get a full ride given her academic standing and our mom’s low income status.

    My sister is stubborn and assumes she knows everything…I guess it runs in the family…no one has been able to change her mind.

    I’d like to know what the repercussions are for her so that I can have an educated conversation with her about this. Has she ruined her chances at a free ride? I don’t want her to be burdened with student loans like myself or so many other people I know. She has so much potential and I am worried about her and upset/disappointed with our mom.




    1. Hi Jason,

      It’s not too late for your sister. While it would be better if she had applied this year and then ask for a deferral for a year, it is possible to start fresh for the next admission season. It will be more of a hassle because she’ll have to go back to her high school and request recommendations and she’ll have to take the SAT/ACT when she hasn’t been in school..

      That’s so very nice of you to be concerned about your sister. Here are some free websites that she can use to study for the SAT when she gets motivated:
      Perfect Test Score
      PWN the SAT

      Good luck!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  18. I personally believe that another difficulty middle class faces is how colleges define affluent. A $200,000/yr household income might seem very comfortable in some part of the country but certainly not in California, especially in the Silicon Valley. In addition, many parents spend thousands of dollars on various extra-curricular activities over the years hoping to develop some sort of a niche in helping their students stand out from the pack to the college admission committee. Combined with higher cost of living, it is much more difficult for these families to afford a private school and/or a UC’s tuition even if they haven’t gone on expensive vacations or own luxurious cars.

    1. A $200,000 a year income IS VERY comfortable, and definitely UPPER middle class, even in California, even in the Silicon Valley. No, you are not rich or even well-to-do, but I live in San Diego county and make $85,000 a year and I comfortably. I own my home and my car is 2 years old. Yet My daughter wouldn’t be able to attend college at all if my father hadn’t passed away and left us his home and a college fund as my inheritance….you are spending your income on your mortgage, which is your choice, but if you lived elsewhere, you would have more to spend on college.

      1. I see were both sides are coming from – but in order for a middle class high achieving student to get in to a good college you have to live in a nice school district, which of course is in an expensive neighborhood. This is because so many “poorer” school districts do not offer the advanced classes in high school that are needed to standout enough to be accepted in this very competitive college environment. If I lived in a lower class district my child would not have been able to take his 8 AP classes that he needed for his major (Biochemistry) due to the competition of applicants. It’s a catch 22 in today’s educational climate and it seems to be like everything – the middle class takes the brunt of the pain – we make enough to get into the game but not enough to have a soda and hot dog when we get in.

  19. Our h.s. junior (son) is just starting to look at state schools and even though he scored 32 on ACT, we are already finding that he will not qualify for much because UNWEIGHTED, his GPA may not be high enough since the school system uses a 94 for an A and 87 for a B, etc. That looks like it is really going to hurt his chances. We too, have too much income for any need-based grants or scholarships, we refuse to take out loans (Dave Ramsey converts), college savings is not bad but not enough to cover even room and board for 4 years, and have another son who is in 9th grade. So, it looks like he will be commuting to NKU for a while, cash flowing semester by semester and teaching them from the start that you have to live within your means. Don’t get me started on the concept of Expected Family Contribution.

    1. Our freshman daughter was accepted to Wesleyan, Tufts and Wash U (amongst others). She is attending Hobart and William Smith Colleges with an extremely generous merit aid package. We don’t qualify for need-based aid, and I take umbrage at the comment that we “think we have the right for someone else to pay ” for our daughter’s college. My husband went to graduate school at night (while he worked a full time job). We work very hard, don’t drive new cars, nor live in a huge house or take fancy vacations and saved our money (all by choice). For those of us in the middle class, it’s hard to swallow paying $50,000 a year when the kid next to yours is going for free. Why is it different for us to want college to cost less, than those who want need-based aid because they made different choices, or perhaps chose not to work as hard or save their money?

      As an aside, I bought and poured over College Solutions and many, many Common Data Sets, and credit Lynn with educating our family on the financial aspects of applying to college. Thanks Lynn!

      1. Hi Melissa,

        I’m glad you found my book helpful and that you mastered how to examine Common Data Sets.

        Congratulations on your daughter getting a great merit aid package from Hobart and William Smith College. Frankly, I think the price of college is too high for nearly everyone regardless of their income. Colleges have been able to charge exorbitant prices which is why need-based aid and merit scholarships for affluent families is necessary. I don’t blame wealthy families for wanting a price break because everybody else is.

        If colleges decided to do away with non-need-based aid and cut the sticker price accordingly, that would be a different matter.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      2. Melissa, your umbrage is interesting. I suspect that the majority of people would not classify your income as “middle class”-an educated guess based on what you wrote and how you wrote it. But, that aside, you did say that your daughter got a generous package, no? You can pay the 50K-but don’t want to. I too worked while going to graduate school (something I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do). I don’t drive new cars nor live in a fancy house or take any vacations at all. I saved too until a number of challenges pretty much wiped me clean. Your writing suggests you view those getting need based aid as being offspring of people who were irresponsible with their money either in order to quality for aid or because they did not plan well. And, you begrudge them need based aid. It is good for you that life circumstances allowed you to save. You have the funds to pay. Many people as noble and hard working as you and your husband simply don’t have the money despite being as saintly as you. I take it that life calamities passed you by. Good, then smile. Ahh, but you are more than happy to accept the merit based aid. That is different, you mutter to yourself. Ahh, you child deserves it, right. Really? Consider this-Bob takes the most difficult classes he can handle. No student in his school workers hard and none are more dedicated. Despite his best efforts and his sacrifice of free time in order to study, he can’t get better than Bs and 500 scores. His parents have been just as dedicated as you and your husband and they provided their son with as many learning opportunities as you provided your daughter. But Bob will never be offered merit based aid because he is not smart enough. Bob does not begrudge your daughter her merit based aid, and few people complain about merit going to only those with the skill or number set deemed desirable by the colleges but hopefully you can now see that, while your family did not get all the goodies, it did get its fill. Maybe asking for more than its fill is asking for too much.

        1. Perhaps it is wrong for any person to be forced to pay for something that another person desires. That would be slavery. Higher income people are forced to pay higher tuition so that lower income people can pay less. Perhaps if every one paid the same tuition fees world be less for all. People could then plan their lives accordingly and make hard choices about where to spend their money.

      3. Some may take umbrage at your presumptuous notion.

        Need base aid vs merit aid is the same in the end. Discount!

        There are very few people who go to school for free including the poor, surprised?
        It is a misconception that if you are poor you will get a free ride. On the contrary, many times, poor people will incur more debt.
        The pell grant I believe is around 6000, state grants are significantly lower, then the largest merit grants usually come from the school itself.
        If you are poor, you may get more benefits. Such as subsidized loans–money that have to be paid back–not free. You may also qualify for other need base scholarships; from what I remember, these are insignificant compared to the cost of college, requires some work to get like an essay, and many people are competing for these, so there is no guarantee that you will get it.

        No doubt, college is expensive. The sticker price in my opinion is overinflated. As someone who has been elevated into high middle class, I would welcome a discount.

    2. Carol, have you thought to ask the school to change to weighted GPAs? I know of two systems totally opposed to weighting that switched after parents challenged the notion that all are good and all should get prizes. The upshot was that kids with few honors classes had higher GPAs and took slots in the top deciles from those that had taken more difficult courses (its a zero sum gain). The school argued that non-honor kids at the top won’t take competitive college offers from those with honors because the colleges do look at the strength of the course load. That is true so when the colleges look more closely at the courses they will reject the non-honor kids so no kids from that school will get into the better colleges. Its not like the colleges will come back and look at the lower ranked kids to see if, per chance, they had better classes. Also, colleges have no way of knowing what classes the other kids took-its not as if schools are given the transcripts of all the kids. All they will know is that Billy’s GPA is to low for Ivy U. There are tons of articles about these issues (“why grade inflation works”, Big Fish Little Pond…etc. Put together an argument and take it to your school.

  20. I wonder about the underlying beliefs of the families that think that they “should” get financial assistance from a school. Dissallusioned – what is the allusion? A few of you seem to think that you have actually have the right for someone else to pay for what you want to buy; a private school education for your child. If your income is large and you would NEED to get loans for college, then you are making choices of what else to do with your money. A larger house, more expensive car, vacations are all a choices that you do not have to make.(Most families actually do not take vacations, they are a luxury.) From a school’s/our school’s perspective you do have a large amount of discretionary income that you could choose to spend on the very real cost of teaching a student for 4 years. Your choice of luxuries in your life does not increase the right of your being given part of your children’s education at other’s expense. If the money goes to you, it does not go to someone else.There are other families that do not have the spend less on other things and pay for college.

    1. Joan, thank you for pointing out the reality that paying for a private college is indeed the responsibility of the student and the student’s family. I quite often hear this notion of entitlement, especially from upper-middle income families, regarding their high-achieving sons and daughters. I never hear these same families say that a private high school ought to give their students merit aid, and I’m curious where these ideas about the private colleges and universities come from?

      I understand that the cost of private college is staggering. And as a counselor who works with students from a wide range of family incomes, I can comfortably respond to the upper income families that there are students with great need who should, and will, be awarded the finite resources that private colleges offer.

      1. Emily, I can certainly appreciate your point. We have four “high-flying” children, the oldest of whom is finishing her first year at a small, private conservatory in Manhattan–paying full price. She is very fortunate that, while painful, we can afford it. The next up, in 2 more years, certainly has the potential to be off the charts for merit, but he well knows that he may be better off choosing a state school (which, in Massachusetts, would be full-tuition scholarship due to his achievements) and then going for the big guns for graduate school. While we certainly hope that some of our kids will indeed be offered merit aid, we do not expect it, and after my daughter’s experience, we will be much more selective in our choices for the rest of their colleges. I will point out that she was offered large merit packages at several schools, but ultimately chose a non-funded spot for a school with the best teacher for her. She knows she is a lucky girl, and she has had a part-time job all this school year to help fund her incidental expenses.

        1. An earlier poster (Susan) had it correct when she stated it was easier for boys than girls to get merit. My son is a sophomore at Vanderbilt and received a full tuition/4-year award. My daughter is a HS sr. and was accepted at all of her schools – Wake Forest, Villanova, American U, Elon, Fairfield, and High Point. Merit awards were just fair. She has a higher GPA than her brother had in HS. She chose High Point because of their approach to teaching to learning. She received a Presidential Scholarship and accepted to an exclusive Media Fellows group. Parents should consider “up and Coming” schools that are trying to change their academic profile for the better.

        2. Your children are lucky to have you guiding them with a perfect combination of realism and optimism through the college admissions process!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Approaching Butler couldn’t hurt if the teenager would like to seriously consider this school. Schools, however, are less likely to be accommodating if the family is seeking strictly merit aid. That is, they are too affluent to qualify for need-based aid.

      In the second edition of my book, The College Solution, I devote a chapter to appealing awards and I use Occidental College in LA as an example. I pulled the examples from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, the appeals committee was not kind to a student who hadn’t received a merit award and was asking for one.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  21. Merit money is really no secret. Your child have to have “merit” in the eyes of the university, either because the school wants the SATs and grades to boost its profile, or wants to boost diversity (geographic or ethnic) or wants your child’s athletic talents. Our daughter is a prime example. She wanted to stay in southern California and wanted to attend a small liberal arts college. She was admitted to Redlands and Oxy (still waiting on Scripps). Redlands gave her $23K in merit money, likely because her scores and grades fall in the top tier of the school’s applicants. Oxy on the other hand offered no merit money because she is closer to the middle of the pack in grades and scores, and she does not add to geographic or ethnic diversity. During a campus visit, Oxy told us they target the students in the top 10% of their applicant pool for merit money – 4.1 and a 1980 SAT will not cut it there for merit money. (I know that division III schools which do not give “athletic” scholarships also find “merit” money for athletes they like.) So, if you are really dependent on getting merit money to make college affordable your child either needs to either be in the top tier of the applicant pool or have other talents or qualities (different from all the other talented kids) that make them valuable to the school for other reasons.

  22. No doubt college costs are unreal (I am a current college student at a school that still has reasonable tuition and fees)! I totally agree with what was said in the earlier replies. It depends on what schools you are applying to and the level of competition among the other applicants. Not to mention that current students at the school are also trying to get merit based scholarships.

    Applying to other schools might bring back more favorable results.

    There are other sources of scholarships and financial aid. Sometimes they are harder to find, but they are there.

  23. One thing not mentioned in this discussion….the increasing difficulty girls are having securing admissions/merit aid due to the fact that the majority of students applying to college are female. Colleges are attempting to balance their populations with regard to gender, and many are top heavy with girls.

    It seems there is no shortage of brilliant, accomplished, talented female high school students seeking admission to college. Girls who are planning to major in predominantly male fields like engineering seem to fair better with aid awards than most. I have also heard stories of talented girls being denied acceptance to schools where far less talented male students have gained acceptance.

    It’s yet another variable I don’t see discussed much, and I think parents of girls need to be aware.

  24. Lynn,
    I totally agree with this email. My daughter applied to Vanderbilt, Elon, Furman, FSU, Ga Tech, St Andrews, Georgetown, Wake Forest and William and Mary.

    Elon offered $4500, Ga Tech nothing, St Andrews nothing, FSU offered $9800 (for all four years plus she has Bright Futures- $3000 per year) and that is it- so far- she’s still waiting to hear from a few.

    She has a 3.95 unweighted GPA. All IB classes. a 32 on the ACT and a 1450 on her SATs! A zillion volunteer hours and clubs, leadership etc….

    Our EFC is 1/3 of our income! We don’t have an extra 1/3 of our salary sitting around. So our options are debt for us or debt for her. We don’t even qualify for subsidized loans!
    We are so despondent. We told her to work hard and get great grades and the sky was the limit. What did we do wrong???

    1. Just dont work or do anything for yourself. Then, you’ll get more aid at the expense of everyone else. My child worked her rear off and has a 3.8 GPA. I commute round-trip 3 hrs a day to work and back. My family of 3 brings in less than 70k a yr and we cannot get any grant money. We can get a loan and kill ourselves another 20 yrs to pay more debt off. What comes of hard work anymore? The system defeats hard work.

  25. I think it also depends on WHEN you apply. The best advice I was given was from the admissions director at Clemson; Wherever you apply, apply early! Schools start handing out merit scholarships as applications come in and once they’re gone, they’re gone. All of my kids applied early, all received generous merit scholarships and they did not have the resume Lisa’s child has. Some of my kids friends applied later (December and January) to the same schools and received nothing.

    1. Thanks for that great insight Mary! I thought this only applied to need-based aid not merit scholarships. I learned something today!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  26. I can speculate on Butler, as many of our high school students apply. If the daughter had applied to Butler’s excellent pharmacy or physician assistant program, merit aid is indeed small or nonexistent. These programs are so popular that the school does not need to give merit aid to get bright students. Also, the deadline for merit aid is quite early, so if she waited too long to apply, she was out of luck.

    1. Thanks Bennett for sharing details on how Butler awards merit money. I great appreciate it!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  27. Lynn,
    I appreciate your comments and am glad that you are telling families that merit aid is possible. I think that students need to be savvy in their choices as geographic diversity, etc. can play a significant role in a college’s decision to award merit aid.
    Kiersten Murphy
    Murphy College Consultants

  28. I agree with Michelle.
    Lynn, you mentioned geographic diversity being helpful in a merit aid strategy. Our experience is consistent with that: our daughter got a nominal merit scholarship from our state school but larger amounts from schools in other states. One piece of advice I was given when I took a “Paying for College” class at our local community college was to apply to many schools because there’s just no way at all to predict what any given school may or may not award our child. This advice is for those who want to play the “merit aid Bingo” game. It is not for the faint of heart or the short of pocket book. But I know people who have paid college consultants $4,000 to give them the same advice that can be found for almost free online here, in books and maybe in a class or two.
    That said, I can certainly understand how Lisa can feel so cheated. But back in our day, most of went to the closest state school since that was our option (singular intended) and we generally did well in life. We’re preaching that message to our daughter as she too awaits a decision from Rice.

    1. Hi Patty,

      Thanks for your wise observations. I particularly like your observation that most of us parents went to the closest state schools and we generally did well in life. I started out at the University of Missouri in St. Louis campus that was 1.5 blocks from my house.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  29. My son got merit aid of $10-20K at the LACs he applied to, and his stats are not near what the subject of the email’s are. I think it’s a matter of which schools were applied to, as Michelle suggests.

    1. I agree with Liz and Michelle. Michelle mentioned that her son got significant merit money from two liberal arts colleges and that makes sense. Schools that aren’t as well known as universities such as SMU and Baylor have to work harder to entice students to attend their campuses. My son got more money from all 8 of the liberal arts colleges that he applied to than what Lisa’s daughter received and my son’s stats weren’t as impressive.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  30. While I agree costs are out of control, the problem in this situation is that she’s in Texas and applied to all the other schools good students in Texas apply to. My son, with not nearly as stellar an application as the daughter had, received easily double the amount of merit aid from the two LAC’s he applied to in Texas. And everyone else said, “never heard of it.” People couldn’t believe that he actually applied to schools outside of Texas, much less chose to attend one.

    As for Butler, who knows? Maybe knowing she only applied to 2 out of state schools they made them decide not to make the effort.

    1. My national merit finalist, presidential scholar nominee, ACT 35, SAT 2370, straight A, many multiple AP classes all with highest scores of 5, soccer & piano playing, multiple golden key art winner, artistic & academic genius daughter with outstanding essays & teacher/counselor recommendations just got accepted to every school to which she applied: Univ Chicago, DUKE, Washington Univ St. Lous… to name a few. HERE’S THE DRUMROLL… NO SCHOLARSHIP MONEY ANYWHERE… PARENTS CONTRIBUTION EXPECTED 100% (BOTH PARENTS MEDICAL DOCTORS WHO SAVED $168,000 FOR COLLEGE SINCE CHILD WAS BORN. PARENTS TOLD TO COVER THE REMAINING AMOUNT FROM THEIR OWN RETIREMENT ACCOUNT!

      1. Hi Jamie,

        I am sorry that your child did not receive merit aid. Looking at the names of schools that you mentioned, I am not surprised. Elite schools like the ones you are aiming for give very little merit money because they don’t have to. Rich students flock to these schools and parents will pay full price. If your son had applied to schools that were not perched at the top of the rankings he would have received many merit awards. A friend of mine, whose son is a National Merit Scholar, just got a $44,000-a-year scholarship to Denison University, which is a wonderful liberals arts college in Ohio. If you want money, you have to be strategic. The most elite schools don’t need to pay merit scholars to come to their schools because they will show up anyway.

        I also disagree with your suggestions that your savings penalized you. Parents with assets have many more choices than those who don’t. Your EFC is primarily impacted by your salaries, not your nonretirement assets. The $168,000 you saved would have only raised your son’s EFC by less than $9,500.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      2. Jamie, are you seriously calling people who are less fortunate than you “dumb sloths?” That is so out of line, and I cannot believe that I am hearing this come out of a physician’s mouth.

        If your family had done enough research you would have found that, as Lynn stated, elite schools generally do not give merit scholarships. This information is not very hard to figure out, as the financial aid office should be upfront with you about these things if you ask them directly. I know they were when my daughter was applying to schools a couple of years ago.

        It’s the middle-tier (but still great) schools that would attract students like your daughter with money.

        For example, my daughter (who had similar scores as your daughter) got a $20k scholarship from Case Western U purely based on merit. It’s not at the same level as the schools you listed, but she ended up going there (even though she didn’t need to, we were prepared to pay full-tuition) because she is cost-conscious and the academics at CWU are still great. She loves it there.

        1. Just wanted to note that that scholarship is renewed on a yearly basis as long as my daughter’s GPA is above a certain, reasonable threshold. So it’s 20k/year, which ends up being 1/2 off tuition.

      3. I wan to share or story because I think the more information parents have going into this the better. My son just graduated. He had a 4.0 GPA, 35 on ACT, National Merit FInalist, Eagle Scout, Football player……and he applied to very different universities. He was accepted at all but Columbia- including Vanderbuilt, Brown, Wake Forest, Wash U, UVA, TN, Emory, Alabama, and Tulane. My son was invited to scholarship weekends at Wash U, Wake Forest and EMory…and was offered significant merit scholarship money from each school- totaling over $600,000……so definitely there is money being given. The schools he got the offers from were Wash U, Wake FOrest, Tulane, and EMory. Brown is Ivy League and cannot give Merit aid- so I encourage parents to look at the big research universities……and apply for every scholarship possible. My son chose Wake Forest- and he is actually going there for less than $!0,000 a yes- so it is possible! Do your research and do not rely on your school guidance counselor.

      4. Lynn is right. My friend’s son received over $50K in scholarsihp money freshman year. Parents are engineers with money saved for college. Their kid was a national merit finalist, ranked 12 out of 800 graduating seniors, high SAT schores, but was smart and went to a state university. You dont have to do Ivy league to get a great education. If thats what you do want, stop complaining, and PAY FOR IT!!!

      5. Wow Dr. Jamie, I can’t resist by saying that my son, also a National Merit Finalist, (despite having an RN for a mother and an engineer for a father AKA dumb sloths), won a Patterson scholarship to the University of Kentucky. We had no where near saved what you had saved for college so my son looked at the schools that offered great merit aid for National Merit Finalists. They are all mostly public state flagship schools. No Dukes, Wash U’s, etc. His scholarship pays for virtually everything with a few bells and whistles thrown in for good measure. (Tuition and room and board for four years, a $1000 yearly stipend, a $2000 summer abroad, and a latest generation iPad). Your child has the same opportunity if they choose to go to one of these schools.

      6. Hello Dr Jamie, I do emphasize with you. When I read your paragraph to my college graduate son ( 2nd of our eight children ) he said: Why doesn’t the girl take out loans like all the rest of us do? So far our family has been fortunate enough to have 3/5 college applicants be awarded National Merit Semifinalists. Our most successful HS graduate ( pertaining to merit scholarships) applied to 13 private /public colleges and universities. He had a 3.0 GPA from a Jesuit HS and interestingly enough scored very high on his 4 AP tests (5,5,5,4) and SAT’s (2270). He decided to attend a small liberal arts Catholic College. His out of pocket costs per year are $3000. I like you have a professional license as does my wife. Our children have attended elite as well as non elite colleges. I enjoy telling the financial aid people at the elite schools that they don’t seem to be able to figure out the financial aid packages nearly as effectively as at the non elites.Education is very expensive. So far our family has paid for 102 years of Catholic School Tuition. I don’t think the costs are going down any time soon. It is a sacrifice however that we are fortunate enough to take on.