Shortchanging a Texas Teenager?

I continue to receive a lot of  comments from last week’s post about the Texas mother, who was bitterly disappointed that her extremely accomplished daughter has been getting underwhelming merit awards or none at all from universities.  This mother was hoping for large merit scholarships because her family is too affluent to qualify for need-based aid. If you missed it, here is the original post:

An Email from a Disillusioned Mom

I promise this is my last post on this issue, but I wanted to share three comments from readers about the Texas teenager’s predicament – as well as another email from the Texas mom.

What “Merit” Means

The first comment comes from an affluent father, whose child was aiming for merit (non-need-based) awards. He brought up an important point about merit scholarships. Schools award this money to teenagers who can help them look better institutionally. Particularly in the eyes of U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.  (I spend time in the second edition of of  The College Solution discussing this phenomenon.) Here is what the dad has to say:

A Dad’s Take on Merit Scholarships

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 University and Occidental College (still waiting on Scripps College). Redlands gave her $23K in merit money, likely because her scores and grades fall in the top tier of the school’s applicants. Oxy (Occidental) 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.

Getting Awards Can Be Harder If You’re a Talented Female

Here is a note from a reader named Susan, who brought up an interesting point about gender bias. It think this is a legitimate point (and again it’s discussed in my book.) I once heard the admission director at Pitzer (CA) College tell an audience that the students who can have the hardest time are talented young white women who want to attend college in their own state. There are so many of these girls (equally talented boys are in shorter supply) and they don’t add anything to the geographic diversity of a school.

Here is that post: Is Applying for Financial Aid Dangerous?

In contrast, young women have a much easier time getting into many engineering schools than guys. For instance, the most recent acceptance rate for men at Cal Tech was 9.1% for men and 23.1% for women.

Here’s Susan’s note:

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.

Do Rich Students Deserve Merit Scholarships

Finally I want to share this message from a mother who wonders why rich families think they deserve merit scholarships. That prompted an email from the Texas mother who started this whole chain! Here is Joan’s comment:

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 choice to spend less on other things and pay for college.

Comment from Disillusioned Mom

While I was writing this post this morning, I received an email from Lisa, the Texas mom, who must have read Joan’s email. Here is Lisa’s note:

Oh boy……I STARTED this thread by talking about scholarships for bright and talented students, for their accomplishments above the average high school student.  Is it come to the fact that IF your parents have money, these types of kids should not get scholarships?   What is your specific criteria for children receiving merit scholarships? I was not talking about grant money from the colleges.

My own thoughts on Lisa’s note…

Particularly at private institutions, rich students often enjoy a competitive admission advantage. Rich students are a hot commodity. These kids tend to have higher GPAs, test scores and parents who are college graduates themselves. Thanks to need aware or need sensitive aid policies, rich student can enjoy an advantage over students of more modest means.

Here is a previous college blog post that I wrote about this phenomenon:

Differences Between Need-Blind and Need-Aware Financial Aid Packages

I don’t fault rich families from wanting a break in price. Everybody does. And since the prices are high, in part, because there is built-in merit money, I wouldn’t want to be one of the families who has to pay full price. In essence, these families are subsidizing everybody else.

Read More on The College Solution:

Email From a Happy Mom





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  1. A Mom’s Take on Merit Scholarships

    I honestly don’t believe there are very many “real” merit scholarships out there. My son has applied for countless scholarships and hasn’t so much as received a reply. This is a student who is in the top 4% of his class has a 4.60 GPA and has been active in his school and community. It’s disappointing as a parent to have raised my children to believe that their is a reward for excellence. This is my third child going off to college with each of them having almost identical credentials all accepted to tier 1 schools, but no scholarships……not a one! Pretty much a big waste of time.

  2. Just checked – Butler’s deadline for maximum merit scholarship consideration is Nov 1. Baylor appears to base its merit awards on a combination of rank in class and standardized test scores. SMU’s big awards have a Jan 15 deadline and list leadership as a main factor. All of this information is readily available on their websites.

    1. Hi Paula — Hey, great detective work. I think what this case shows is that you have to be very methodical when applying to colleges and universities.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. There were many good points made on your last post, Lynn, regarding the awarding of merit money. One that wasn’t mentioned is the “Level of Applicant’s Interest”. The 3 schools referenced – Baylor, Butler and SMU – either “consider” or find a student’s interest “important” in the application process. Did the student have any contact with these schools other than her application? Did she visit? Did she have an interview (if offered), attend any events, speak to a representative? You may love a school but if you don’t demonstrate that interest, how will the people making the decisions know?

    Also, at some schools consideration for the larger merit awards (half to full tuition) have a much earlier deadline. Miss that and you are only considered for a relatively small award. Again, you have to show enough interest to realize that the earlier deadline exists.

  4. I think that calling families who do not qualify for financial aid wealthy or affluent is probably a gross over generalization. I am upside down on my mortgage. Drive a truck with 148k miles and have a second car with 98k miles! I am not living a large life with fancy cars and expensive trips. I have not chosen “things” over my children’s education.
    I always thought that if my child was a high acheiving kid who volunteers, studies hard, shows leadership, has high test scores, etc… they would not only get into college but earn merit awards also. We are not looking at a hand out just some recognition of 12 years of significant effort.
    Our EFC is 30% of our yearly income. Who has 30% of their income free and laying around? Not us! So no merit aid, no financial aid and not sure where we went wrong!

    1. I am with you! Basically looking at a 30% paycut…not many people are prepared to do that. We have a 22 year old car (my college car) a 10 year old car and a 6 year old car, we have been very responsible, we have very little debt. But, the price of college is very high. If you go to the cheaper in state school there is even less merit aid/assistance and it can be more than the private school. Kind of nuts!