10 Reasons Why National Merit Scholarships aren’t that Big of a Deal

student in rush of people representing why national merit scholarship isn't that big of a dealStarting 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.

It doesn’t.

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 will get some version of a free ride, the reality is that the award will be 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 2,500 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.

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 161 are listed as being likely to offer National Merit Scholarships for 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.

According to the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation 2018-19 Annual Report, of the 15,148 finalists, only 7,642 received National Merit Scholarships. The awards totaled $31.2 million which averages to $4,082 per finalist.

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 $3,510, for 2018-19, the average was $10,230.

While the NMSC doesn’t list the awards by year, the Los Angeles Times has a story about 136 area semi-finalists having the chance to win a $2,000 National Merit scholarship. The award would have to be well 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.*

Seven states don’t have any colleges sponsoring National Merit Scholarships and another 10 have only one college. Texas has the most with 11, followed by Florida, Indiana, and Ohio with 8 each.  California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota tied for third with 7 each.

9. Seven Colleges offer 50 or more scholarships.*

These schools are expected to offer the most scholarships by the NMSC:

Institution # Value of National Merit Finalist Award
University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa  115 Full Tuition/Housing; $3,500 stipend per year, $2,000 research; $2,000 books
Texas A&M University 110 $7,000 per year; $1,000 study abroad stipend; National Merit Sponsorship $500 per year
University of Texas at Dallas  100 Waives Full Tuition/Fees; $4,000 per semester cash stipend, $1,500 per semester on campus housing; $6,000 study abroad stipend
Arizona State University  85 New American University Scholarship-varies
University of Kentucky  75 Patterson-full-tuition
University of Oklahoma 75 Waives Tuition up to 5 years; $22,000 fees, books, room and board;
$2,500 cash stipend; $5,500 1st Yr Housing; $1,000 Technology allowance; $1,000 Research Study abroad.
University of Chicago  60 Minimum $2,000 award
Auburn University  55 $1,000 per year, residents may receive National Scholars Presidential
Scholarship for $10,500 per year.
University of Arizona  55 Residents $18,000; Non-residents an additional $5,000
Northwestern University  50 $2,000 a year.

The most valuable National Merit Finalist scholarships are coming from state universities. They often include additional funding for study abroad, research opportunities, or technology purchases.

10. Seven of the top 19 colleges with most Finalists don’t sponsor National Merit Scholarships.**

The following lists the schools enrolling 100 or more Finalists in 2019.

Number Name Sponsored
270 University of Florida 231
265 University of Southern California 206
258 University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa 210
244 Northwestern University 188
233 University of Chicago 174
222 Vanderbilt University 168
207 Harvard University 0
200 University of Texas at Dallas 173
188 Texas a&m University 144
155 Northeastern University 133
136 Arizona State University 113
134 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 0
132 University of California, Berkeley 0
126 University of Pennsylvania 0
124 Stanford University 0
119 Duke University 0
116 Purdue University 101
114 Princeton University 0
107 University of Minnesota- Twin Cities 95

Of course, some of the students at Harvard and MIT might have received National Merit Scholarships sponsored by businesses or the National Merit Scholarship Corporation itself. But the schools themselves saw no reason to use their own money to reward finalists.

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 2020 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 2018-19 Annual report and reflect the actual numbers by counting the students. Obviously, some schools offer significantly more scholarships than expected.

*2020 National Merit Scholarship Program (Minimum number colleges are expect to offer annually)
**From the National Merit Scholarship Corporation Annual Report

10 Reasons Why National Merit Scholarships aren\'t that Big of a Deal

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