High-Income Students and Merit Scholarships

The Guardian newspaper in London once published an article that suggested that children of upper-middle-class families are having to attend public universities because they are too affluent to receive need-based aid and they aren’t getting scholarship from private institutions.

What the reporter, who happens to be the wife of Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, didn’t seem to realize is that outside the East Coast bubble, there are plenty of colleges and universities that provide merit scholarships to students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid.

The most elite schools on the East Coast, such as the Ivies, don’t give merit scholarships because they don’t have to. They enjoy high positions in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings so wealthy students will flock to them without price breaks.

No Merit Scholarship Schools

I only know of the following 23 schools that don’t award any merit scholarships. I have included the names below and in this course resource guide:  Schools That Don’t Provide Merit Scholarships.

  1. Amherst College (MA)
  2. Bates College (ME)
  3. Brown University (RI)
  4. California Institute of Technology
  5. Colgate University (NY)
  6. Columbia University (NY)
  7. Dartmouth College (NH)
  8. Georgetown University (DC)
  9. Hamilton College (NY)
  10. Harvard University (MA)
  11. Haverford College (PA)
  12.  Middlebury College (VT)
  13. Pomona College (CA)
  14. Princeton University (NJ)
  15. Reed College (OR)
  16. Stanford University (CA)
  17. Swarthmore College (PA)
  18. Tufts University (MA)
  19. University of Pennsylvania
  20. Vassar College (NY)
  21. Wellesley College (MA)
  22. Williams College (MA)
  23. Yale University (CT)

Modest Merit Scholarship Awards

It’s more usual for the most elite schools to provide modest scholarships to wealthy students and severely limit those they award.

Pitzer College, one of the prestigious Claremont (CA) schools, recently offered six high-income students scholarships worth an average of just $5,000 a piece. At Northwestern University 5% of freshmen recently received merit scholarships that averaged just $2,348.

Wesleyan University offers a different approach. The liberal arts college in Middletown, CTs, offered just six students out of a freshmen class of 744 a huge merit scholarship worth more than $48,000 a year.

Other Elite Schools Offering Small Merit Scholarships and Average Amount

  • Bowdoin (ME)  $1,000
  • Colby College (ME) $500
  • Carleton College (MN) $2,000
  • Franklin and Marshall College $2,500

Merit Aid at Southern Schools

The most highly ranked schools in the South and Texas, however, are more likely to give larger merit scholarships than elsewhere in the country. I don’t have a definitive explanation for this, but I suspect a couple of reasons.

No.1:  It can be harder to convince wealthy students from elsewhere in the country to attend schools in the South. A brand name school in Boston isn’t going to experience trouble attracting bright students from other regions, but it could be a harder sell for Vanderbilt, which is located in Nashville.

In alphabetical order, you’ll see the most highly ranked colleges and universities (according to U.S. News) in the South. I’ve included the number of merit scholarships each school offers its freshman, who have no financial aid, and the average, annual scholarship award.

  • Davidson College, 24 merit scholarships, $21,747
  • Duke University, 60 merit scholarships, $54,947
  • Emory University, 49 merit scholarships, $17,850
  • Rice University, 149 merit scholarships, $12,033
  • Tulane University, 596 merit scholarships, $22,360
  • Sewanee-University of the South, 93 merit scholarships, $20,968
  • Vanderbilt University, 161 merit scholarships, $18,797 (see photo)
  • University of Richmond, 52 merit scholarships, $39,785

Striking Out on Merit Aid

I once received an email from a mom/physician who was quite upset that her daughter, a National Merit Finalist, hadn’t received merit scholarships at any of the schools that she applied to including Washington University in St. Louis, Duke and the University of Chicago. The woman and her husband, who is also a physician, had saved $168,000 for college and had expected help with merit money. They didn’t appreciate just how difficult it can be for a high-income student to receive merit scholarships if they conduct a narrow college search.

You can read her heated email in this post that I wrote:  An Angry Mom Rails Against Elite Colleges

I included my reactions to the family’s situation in this post: Different Scholarship Results for National Merit Finalists that I suggest you read. In my post I mention that wealthy students will receive merit aid at the vast majority of schools.

The “Angry Mom” post generated 170 comments and I think they are worth reading because they capture how these parents are feeling and what their options are. Below I share the comments from two wealthy mothers, with National Merit finalists, who successfully targeted schools that would provide their sons with institutional merit scholarships.

Mom from Del Mar, CA:

We see this again and again in our community. Truly spectacular teens, like this mother’s daughter, apply to 10-15 name-brand schools, get into 3-5 and don’t get a nickel in aid. Sadly the fix is very simple: Apply to a different set of schools.

Both of our sons were accepted to every school they applied to and only our current high school senior had one school offer nothing: Kenyon College, which had a record year for applicants.

Every other school offered from $10,500 to $44,000 per year in merit scholarships. In fact, that really high, outlier number came ctclfrom Denison University (part of Colleges that Change Lives), which gives 20 National Merit Finalists that sum every year. If only this mom had considered having her daughter apply there! If he commits there this month, he can save most of his funds for graduate school.

Another mom:

Families must conduct some serious due diligence in the college application and admissions process. The more research done by families before it’s time to submit applications, the better the admissions outcome and financial aid packages should be. A few campus visits and reading college brochures is not enough research. Families need to be tearing apart the Common Data Set info for each college, seeing how their student’s profile matches a college and how likely the college would offer them merit aid, and digging into plenty of other public details online to create a good college search strategy.

My National Merit Finalist kid received annual merit aid offers in the range of $15-22k from at least 12 colleges because we strategized on the best approach to this process. All of them offered her merit aid, not just a couple of them. The merit money really is out there but you have to do some work and purposely seek it out.

She didn’t bother applying to colleges known for giving little to no merit aid. From our research, we knew that as a National Merit Finalist, she could’ve attended Alabama, Arizona State University (Barrett Honors College), University of Oklahoma and a couple other places totally for free or for very minimal cost. Instead, she opted for a private Midwestern liberal arts college 1,000 miles from home where she’s thriving in an incredibly strong program for her major.

Bottom Line:

As mentioned elsewhere in this lesson, if you won’t qualify for need-based aid and you want your child to obtain a merit scholarship, you will significantly increase your chances if you expand your search beyond the schools at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.

Learn More:

Ivy League Schools Are Overrated: Send Your Kids Elsewhere

College Rankings and the Best Students


Let's Connect

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  1. Lynn,

    I looked on College Data and it indicates that Georgetown and Columbia give merit scholarships. At Georgetown, it’s 30% of all undergrads (the average amount is not specified) and at Columbia, it’s 3.8% of all undergrads. I realize that 3.8% is pretty meager, but 30% isn’t. Are you sure that Georgetown belongs on the list of 23?


    1. Post

      Hi Mark,

      Georgetown University doesn’t give out any merit scholarships. If you look on the line that says Merit-Based Gift, it says Not Reported. That means it doesn’t provide any.

      You were looking in the Merit-Based Gift subcategory for Average Award for students who qualify for need-based aid. As you can see, the average need-based gift is $42,660. Apparently, some students with need must get a big more with a merit-based gift.

      Lynn O.

  2. Lynn,

    Questions after watching the College Cost Lab #3 video:

    1. Issue with NPC is that there is not a consideration for merit aid. Do you just take NPC and consider merit you “might” get. How you do you know you are not eliminating schools that maybe you could afford, depending on merit – like the chart you showed having Duke giving 60 scholarships average ~$54. How do you know if you would qualify for something like that w/out applying?

    2. If class rank is not applicable to your situation (homeschool) do you list as “Rank 1” or “NA”?

    3. Can you see stats on any schools where your geographic residence would be a positive thing? Meaning, they are looking for students from “X” state.

    4. Still a bit confused on if you should still file the FAFSA even though you know you will not get aid?

    Thanks, April

    1. Post

      Hi April,

      1. Many NPCs do calculate merit aid. The schools that don’t include those that use the federal template. I assume Duke doesn’t calculate it because merit scholarships are so rare and I assume, without looking to be sure, that they require a separate application. Only 3% of freshmen receive a merit scholarship so you should assume that your child will not receive one.

      2. I would list NA.

      3. Schools can be interested in geographic diversity except for the most elite schools that attract students from across the country. You can look at a school’s Common Data Set to see if this is important to them.

      4. There is no need to file the FAFSA if you are sure you will not qualify for need-based aid unless you want to use federal college loans. Also some schools, which are definitely in the minority, might require filing the FAFSA to qualify for merit aid. The only one I personally know about is Georgia Tech.

      Lynn O.

  3. Lynn, What do you think of the following scenario: I tell my kid that he has a budget of X dollars per year for college, with X equal to the cost of UC Berkeley. If he wants to go to a more expensive school, he will need to take out loans to cover the difference. If he wants to go to a cheaper school (due to his getting a merit scholarship or otherwise), he can apply the difference toward graduate school?

  4. lynne,
    there is a list of colleges that DO NOt provide merit aid. how would i go about finding colleges that do give generous merit only not needed base?

    1. Hi Jana,

      I would suggest that you look at the resource guide entitled, The Ultimate College List Builder, to get a good idea of what kind of schools are more likely to provide better merit aid. Schools that are master’s level universities and colleges in general are more likely to provide better merit scholarships than research universities. Also schools not located in cities – particularly on the coasts- are more likely to provide more money.

      Lynn O.

  5. Hi Lynn – I hope this is the best spot to ask a couple of questions:
    1) Any thoughts of Pacific Lutheran University? They have a wonderful admissions rep who makes such a personal connection with each student she talks to. It’s also appealing to us because they give full year’s credit to IB Diploma recipients (which my daughter will receive). We’re thinking it’s a good option to still be close to Seattle (she wants a big city), larger than most liberal arts schools (which she’d like) and get strong merit aid.

    2) Another option we’re considering is Lake Forest in Chicago. I can’t find merit aid numbers for them (not on collegedata.com, & can’t find by googling or searching their website.Do you have any information on this, and just on the school in general? We’re thinking it may be a good option for her – U Chicago is her “dream school” but we will qualify for maybe minimal need-based aid. Luckily she has very strong academics.

    I’ll also mention that both of these schools have good D3 swim teams, which she is interested in, and should give her an additional “hook”.

    (I apologize for repeating parts of these questions from the previous session. I didn’t get a chance to check back for your reply before the course was over.)

    1. Hi Susan,

      I can’t give you any personal opinion about Pacific Lutheran, but I favor schools that provide personal attention. I think that is a huge plus to be able to get a full year’s credit for your daughter’s IB diploma. And I bet she’d get a very strong package if she’s the sort of student who could aim for U of Chicago.

      That is irritating about Lake Forest. I would have your daughter contact the school — via the admission rep for your area – and ask about the merit aid opportunities. The daughter of a good friend of mine graduated from Lake Forest last spring and had a phenomenal experience. She is an incredibly bright girl and got lots of opportunities. The school works hard to provide students with internship opportunities in Chicago. Lake Forest is in a very exclusive community in the Chicago suburbs.

      My son applied to the school and got an extra scholarship for science. I’d definitely have her check out the extra scholarships the school offers beyond the automatic merit aid she might receive. To get the science scholarship my son had to turn in a separate application. He got an extra $8,000 for putting in probably two hours of work. Of course, Ben ended up going to Beloit.

      Lynn O.

  6. Hi Lynn,

    I totally agree that it’s going to be very hard to get one of these high dollar scholarships from these prestigious southern schools.

    If the angry mom’s daughter who had straight A’s, high GPA, high rank, 35 ACT score, and numerous other talents couldn’t even get one, it makes me wonder what kind of student does???

  7. Wow! Just to clarify; are the average merit scholarship amounts from the schools listed above, per year or over 4 years? I am assuming that Duke’s $54k average merit scholarship is the total for all 4 years (ie. the $54k would be divided by 4 years to get the merit award amount per year).

    Also, if merit aid is given for all 4 years, is that given out automatically every year, or is it contingent upon a student maintaining a certain GPA etc (ie. can a school rescind their merit aid offer?)

    1. Hi Maya,

      Thanks for your question.

      Each of the scholarship amounts are for one year only. Keep in mind that it’s going to be quite competitive to win one of these scholarships at these prestigious Southern schools.

      Typically, schools have requirements about how students can keep their scholarships. Often students have to maintain a 3.0 GPA. You’ll have to ask individual schools what their policies are.

      Lynn O.

  8. Lynn,

    Duke University offers 60 merit scholarships and the average award is for $54,947? Is that a misprint? It seems so much higher than the other school in the list above, that are offering merit aid in the range of $12k-$27$?

    1. Hi Maya,

      That is correct. Private elite universities in the South tend to give higher merit awards than comparable elite schools elsewhere.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy