Merit aid is not need-based, so this type of aid is especially important for families who qualify for little or no need-based financial aid. Colleges offer merit aid as a way to give families a discount and to attract certain students.  But how much do colleges offer?

How to Start Researching Merit Aid

Families can start researching the availability of merit aid at a particular college by looking into the college’s financial generosity. Do this by looking up the college at Once you’re at a college’s profile, go to “Paying” and then “Financial Aid by the Numbers”. You’ll see a number for “Average non need-based aid,” which gives you a sense of the size of non need-based aid the college offers.  This number includes merit aid.

How to Find Merit Aid Offered by a College

To gain further understanding of how much non need-based aid the college offers, go to the college’s website. As an example, let’s take a look at Allegheny College. From Allegheny’s homepage, it’s easy to navigate to the financial aid page. At the top of the financial aid page, Allegheny says that they’re a “Top National Liberal Arts College and Affordable”. This could be a good sign because it shows that the college is proud of being affordable. However, do further research because a college could try to create the perception that it’s affordable even though it’s not.

Your College Advisors Guide to A is for Admission

Allegheny also boasts its financial generosity in another way. The financial aid main page proudly announces, “This year, more than 90% of our students received some form of assistance.” Keep in mind that “some form of assistance” could include student loans.

When you navigate to “Types of Aid”, at the top, you see the Allegheny Trustee Scholarship. Any student who submits an admissions application to Allegheny is eligible for this merit-based award, which ranges from $10,000 to $30,000 a year. That’s a significant amount. Moreover, the Trustee Scholarship is guaranteed for eight full-time semesters.

Who Gets Merit Aid?

Unfortunately, Allegheny doesn’t provide details on who would win a Trustee Scholarship. The website explains, “The award is based on the same criteria that we value in the admission process: strength and rigor of academics, test scores (optional), essays and recommendations, and a student’s contributions and achievements outside of the classroom.”

Nonetheless, you can make an educated guess on who is more likely to get more merit aid by doing a little more research. Search online for “Allegheny admitted profile” to see a snapshot of the admitted pool of students. Information includes: “Ranked in top 10% of high school: 33%” and “Ranked in top 25% of high school: 65%.” This information shows that Allegheny values students who rank highly at their college. All else being equal, a student who is ranked higher compared to other students probably gets a larger merit scholarship and/or has a higher chance of getting a merit aid.

How Much Merit Aid?

A college’s net price calculator provides an estimate of how much families would need to pay out-of-pocket and may provide an estimate of merit aid. In addition to providing income and tax information, to use Allegheny’s net price calculator, you also need the student’s academic information, including “cumulative GPA (required), standardized test scores, and high school rank and class size (if applicable).” The requirement for the student’s academic information shows that Allegheny takes into account merit when calculating how much a family needs to pay.

Results from the calculator includes a line for “Allegheny Scholarships and Grants,” which seems to be a mix of merit and need-based aid from the college (not the federal or state government). The calculator also has a line for “Total Other Aid Available”, like Federal Direct Student Loans.  Unfortunately, some colleges make it less obvious to figure out how much merit aid they offer.

Note that Allegheny’s net price calculator is clearly available on the financial aid website, probably because they have nothing to hide in terms of the cost of attending Allegheny.  Some colleges intentionally make their net price calculator difficult to find.

Final Thoughts

Finding money for college is not easy, but certainly worth the time. Doing some research can mean saving tens of thousands of dollars on college bills. Take the time to research merit aid, and the hard work will pay off.

Additional Information

Paying for College 101 Facebook Group by Debbie Schwartz
Ron Lieber’s article in the Your Money column in The New York Times

(Photo: University of Minnesota Duluth)