Starting sometime in December of each year, you’ll see various College Confidential Boards, test prep websites, select parent support groups, and occasional independent college counselors start posting the minimum PSAT scores required by state to qualify as a National Merit Semi-Finalist. Depending on the venue, there will be some wailing of the unfairness of the system that allows students outside New York and Massachusetts to qualify with “much” lower scores. From the angst level, you would imagine National Merit Status confers students with full-rides and automatic admissions to the colleges of their choice.
Before you start ratcheting up the academic stress level around your household to qualify as a National Merit Finalist, you really need to know the following.
1-Most are not full ride scholarships.
With all the hype surrounding the National Merit Scholar program, you would think we’re talking about the opportunity for some significant money. While some students may get some version of a free ride, the reality is that the award will much less for the majority of students.
2-There are 3 kinds of National Merit Scholarships.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) awards $2,500 one-time scholarships to approximately 7,600 finalists.
Corporate sponsors provide another 1,000 or so awards for children of employees or students in their communities. These may or may not be renewable and they can range from $500 to $10,000.
Colleges sponsor close to an additional 4,000 or more scholarships. Like corporate awards, they may not be renewable and they can vary in size.
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3-Colleges are the source of the most valuable free ride scholarships.
Colleges are the principal source of the “free ride” National Merit Scholarships. These generally require Finalists to list the college as their first choice. It’s not always clear if these scholarships are automatically awarded based on Finalist status.
4-Most colleges don’t sponsor National Merit Scholarships.
Out of over 1,500 four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates, only 181 are listed as being likely to offer National Merit Scholarships the coming year. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation lists colleges and the minimum number of scholarships they are expected to offer but this is not guaranteed.
5-Most colleges that sponsor National Merit Scholarships don’t offer full rides.
It’s hard to find out how many awards are actually full-ride scholarships since the NMSC doesn’t list the actual value of the college scholarships by college. So how do I know for certain that a majority don’t offer full-rides since I didn’t look them all up? Well, if they did don’t you think they would be blabbing about it in all of their publications?
6-Only half of all finalists will win a scholarship.
From the 2015-16 Annual Report:
The National Merit® Scholarship Program strives to provide scholarships for as many students as possible. With the support of 402 independent sponsor organizations, approximately half of the Finalists and a substantial number of other deserving program participants in the 2016 competition received scholarships for their undergraduate education.
7-The NMSC award hasn’t kept up with the cost of college.
Part of the problem with National Merit Scholarships being considered a big deal is that parents remember it as being a big deal for them. And it was, at least more so than today.
According to the College Board, in 1990-91 the average public four-year tuition was $3,580, for 2017-18, the average was $9,970.
While the NMSC doesn’t list the awards by year, the Los Angele Times has a story about 136 area semi-finalists having the chance to will a $2,000 National Merit scholarship.
The award would have to be over $5,000 to come close to matching tuition growth.
Of course, even then there was plenty of National Merit hype which may be what parents are remembering rather than the actual numbers.
8-Some states don’t have any colleges sponsoring National Merit Scholarships.*
10 states don’t have any colleges sponsoring National Merit Scholarships and another 10 have only one college. Texas has the most with 12, followed by Ohio with 10, and California, Indiana, and Pennsylvania tied for third with 9 each.
9-Seven Colleges offer 50 or more scholarships. *
These schools are expected to offer the most scholarships by the NMSC:Texas A& M (110), Arizona State (85), Carleton (60), University of Chicago (60), Auburn University (55), University of Arizona (55), and Northwestern University (50). However, the annual amount for Carleton and Northwestern is $2,000. The University of Chicago doesn’t list the amount. It appears the University of Arizona’s is the most valuable.
10-Four of the top ten colleges with most Finalists don’t sponsor National Merit Scholarships.**
The following lists the 2016 schools with the most Finalists. Numbers in parenthesis are the number sponsored by the school.
- University of Oklahoma 279 (236)
- University of Chicago 277 (185)
- Harvard 233
- University of Southern California 230 (189)
- Vanderbilt 220 (166)
- Stanford 177
- Northwestern 168 (125)
- UC Berkeley 161
- MIT 154
- University of Minnesota 150 (113)
The numbers in items 8, and 9 may seem at odds with those in item 10. This is because the most recently available data comes for the 2017 application information. It lists the number of scholarships the NMSC expects the college to offer annually. But it’s not in any way guaranteed. The numbers in item 10 come from the 2016 Annual report and reflect the actual numbers by counting the students. Obviously, some schools offer significantly more scholarships than expected.
*2017 National Merit Scholarship Program (Minimum number colleges are expect to offer annually)
**From the National Merit Scholarship Corporation Annual Report
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