The average cost of college is high, and it's been rising for decades. If you're feeling the squeeze in your wallet as you think about funding higher education, you're in good company. Between 2008 and 2022, in-state tuition among major public universities grew 79%. Tuition alone averages $43,775 for private colleges, $28,238 for out-of-state public colleges, and $11,631 for in-state schools for the 2022 academic year, according to US News and World Report, and that doesn't include room and board and other costs of attendance. Understandably, many families look for any opportunity they can to reduce these costs, including scholarships.
Scholarships come in two main varieties: Need-based and Merit-based aid. Securing Need-based scholarships is typically just a matter of locating and applying for them. We won't take a deep dive into Need-based aid here, but for more on the topic, check out this article on the FAFSA and applying for Financial Aid.
Merit-based aid, on the other hand, involves consideration of a student's academic, athletic, or other achievement. This is where things can get interesting. If a student can meet the right criteria, he or she could qualify for scholarships ranging from a few hundred dollars to their entire cost of attendance.
Many students assume that they can't or won't meet qualifications for Merit aid, but there are some colleges which are quite generous with their merit-based aid packages. Oberlin College, for example, offered a full 42% of their students some form of merit aid for the 2019-2020 school year, and the average award was $16,998 for the year. Nationwide, more than one in five students received merit aid in 2019-2020. Furthermore, many public universities offer more merit aid to out-of-state students than in-state students as a way of making their school more attractive to high-achieving students around the country. If a student's preferred school happens to be out-of-state, qualifying for merit aid could be the factor that makes that choice affordable.
Do standardized test scores help with qualifying for merit-based aid? The short answer is yes! Each scholarship opportunity is different, but typical academic scholarships will combine GPA requirements with high standardized test scores to qualify for their scholarships. For example, the University of Alabama offers automatic (yes, automatic!) merit scholarships to high achieving out-of-state students entirely based on GPA and test scores. Scholarships range from a yearly value of $6,000 for students with a 27 ACT score (1260-1290 SAT equivalent) and 3.00-3.49 GPA to a yearly value of $28,000 for students with at least a 32 ACT score and 3.50 of higher GPA for the 2022 school year. Other organizations like the National Merit Scholarship Program rely heavily on standardized test scores like the PSAT to qualify students for aid. For students with high GPA's, sometimes the key to receiving scholarship money is simply getting their test scores up.
How do you go about finding scholarship opportunities? The two main sources of merit-based aid are colleges/universities and private organizations. For many colleges, the only thing you have to do to apply for merit aid is apply to the school. Locating private scholarships takes initiative, but there are plenty out there. Don't let the extra work of finding scholarship opportunities keep you from getting started - a full $100 million in scholarship funds go unclaimed every year, according to Forbes. There are numerous online databases as well as local community opportunities.
Once you've decided to pursue merit-based financial aid opportunities, here are a couple of tips to make the process work:
Start Early - this will make sure you've got the time you need to locate and apply for numerous aid awards, as well as give you time to boost your GPA or test scores if that will help you qualify.
Find good-fit scholarships. Not every opportunity is a perfect match, and some have very specific requirements, such as athletic achievement, community service hours, or other stipulations.
Make an ACT or SAT study plan. Raising your score to qualify for a scholarship takes time, and planning to put the work in is a must!
Keep your GPA up. Meet with teachers, find a study buddy, and do whatever you can to keep that GPA high.