More and more colleges offer merit scholarships to prospective students, whether they need them or not. 

Merit scholarships will be the most likely source to reduce college costs for many families because it is not tied to income, only academic performance or talent. Some of these awards require no additional work to apply, but larger awards may require additional essays, and possibly interviews. 

There are always questions that come up about merit scholarships.

Below are some of the common questions and my answers.

Why have colleges gone in the direction of offering merit scholarships?

  • They need and want more students who are most likely to earn a degree
  • They need to improve their retention and graduation rates to attract better students
  • They need to attract the best faculty who will want to teach them

Is a merit scholarship always a good thing?

It is, of course, if the merit scholarship is an unexpected surprise from your first-choice school. If costs are not an issue, the scholarship is icing on a very nice cake.

Can you find out if you might qualify for a merit scholarship before you apply to a school? 

Colleges that offer merit scholarships to prospective students in upper third to upper quarter of their admit pool will often post information on their admissions or financial aid Web pages. Or you can Google ‘school name freshman merit scholarships’ to find this information.

Is there a minimum GPA required to keep the award?

Colleges usually award merit scholarships contingent on maintaining good to excellent grades in college. Most of the time the minimum GPA is a 3.0 (B) average. I have seen minimums that were lower (2.75 or better) as well as higher (3.25 or better). Occasionally you will see a school that requires a merit scholarship recipient merely to be on target to earn their degree on time. Those awards are rare, but the most appreciated. You want the minimum GPA to be as low as possible. A student would have more freedom to consider what s/he wants to study, versus finding a major that is “easy enough” to maintain the GPA.

Could we afford to cover costs for this school if we lost the merit scholarship? 

It is common for schools to require continuing students to maintain higher GPAs for the larger awards. Suppose a $60,000 college makes a $20,000/year award continent on a 3.25 GPA. Your student is interested in a major where the faculty are less likely to give As and Bs. If your student does okay to continue, but not well enough to keep the scholarship, could you make up the money? It’s one thing to make up for the loss of a small award by working or going into family savings. It’s another to make up for a very large one.

Were there schools on your final list that were less expensive with no scholarship than the schools that offered the merit scholarship? 

Unless an awarded student is at or near the very top of the admit pool it will be rare that s/he will receive a merit scholarship that will bring the price down close to what s/he would have paid to be a resident student at their home state university. If costs and confidence building are issues, it might be a better deal to walk into a less expensive school with no pressure to keep a merit scholarship.

How much does the merit scholarship fulfill need? 

It is common for college financial aid offices to send award letters that mention a need-based award as well as a merit-based award. These offices might be using the merit scholarship to fulfill part of all of a family’s financial need. If the school does this fairly, the merit scholarship might be used to fill gaps that might otherwise be filled through jobs or loans. If a school offers a financial aid package that includes a merit scholarship and a need-based scholarship be sure that your family will not need to borrow from any source other than the Federal Stafford Student Loan program, if a loan is necessary.

How much has this school increased tuition and fees in the past? 

To give an example, when a school charges $40,000 in tuition and fees, then announces a 3 percent (or $1,200) increase, that increase is not likely to be covered through financial aid. At least part of it will come from the student’s wages or your family’s pocket. Merit scholarships are not usually increased each year. Tuition and fees almost always are.

It’s exciting to know that a college wants you so much, it is willing to offer a significant discount to encourage you to choose to enroll. But that discount, in the form of a merit scholarship, might come with other prices that a college-bound student will have to pay on the way to their degree. Its wise to get the answers to the important questions before committing to a school where you might be dependent on that award to help cover costs.

Need help on the journey to college? Contact me at or call me at 609-406-0062.

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