(Updated 2022) The National Merit Scholarship® Program seems like a great opportunity for test savvy high school students and their families to make a substantial dent in college costs. Well, it really all depends. Much to the surprise of many families, being a National Merit® Finalist doesn’t mean a full-ride scholarship to the college of your choice.
Different Types of National Merit Scholarships®
There are three types of National Merit Scholarships. There is the one-time $2,500 awarded by the National Merit Scholarship® Corporation to approximately 7,600 scholars. Corporations sponsor another 1,000 scholarships, mainly for children of employees but also for students living in certain areas or pursuing specific majors. These may or may not be renewable and range in value from $500 to $10,000.
The third type of scholarship is generally the most valuable–those sponsored by colleges. These scholarships may be only one time awards of only $2,500. However, many of them are renewable awards for much more and the most valuable offer the coveted “free ride.”
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that only around half of all finalists will win any scholarship. According to the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation 2018-19 Annual Report, (the most recently available 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.
Most Colleges Don’t Provide National Merit Scholarships®
Out of over 1,500 4-year institutions with 500 or more full-time undergraduates, less than 200 offer National Merit Scholarships®. Furthermore, these schools that sponsor such scholarships are generally not the same schools everyone wants to attend. In fact, very few of the most competitive colleges and universities sponsor National Merit Scholarships®. That doesn’t mean these schools don’t have National Merit Scholars®. In 2019, Stanford enrolled 124, Harvard 207, and MIT 134. None of these students received National Merit Scholarships® to attend these schools. These schools just don’t have to offer money as an incentive to attend.
And for those competitive colleges that do such as the University of Chicago, Carleton College, and Vanderbilt University, the amounts tend to be small relative to the actual cost of attendance. The University of Chicago expects to sponsor 60 National Merit Scholars® in 2022. The value of the scholarship is $2,500 and the expected total cost of attendance is over $80,000.
Sponsoring a large number of National Merit Scholarships® is one way schools’ improve their academic standing. By sponsoring National Merit Scholarships, the University of Texas at Austin could claim that it was only second to Harvard in the number of enrolled National Merit Scholars. It stopped participating in the program in 2009. New York University stopped around the same time after sponsoring 83 scholarships for its 2009-10 class. By 2015, Washington University in St. Louis joined those in withdrawing from providing National Merit Scholarships.
Oklahoma University may be next. In 2018, after years of participating in the program and funding four full-time staff members to recruiting scholars, the new president decided to cut back on the program. In 2018, the number of scholars had dropped to 155. This year OU expects to sponsor 75 scholars. This still ranks them in the top ten in the number of scholarships but is a significant drop from previous years.
Colleges with Incentives to Provide National Merit Scholarships®
If you want to get the most out of being a National Merit Scholar®, target a 50-50 school. These are schools that accept at least 50% of students and have at least a 50% graduation rate. Out of 158 schools or systems sponsoring National Merit Scholarships®, 112 of them are 50-50 schools.
This isn’t surprising since many of these colleges are interested in developing a national reputation. Colleges haven’t been shy about publicizing the number of National Merit Scholars® attending their institutions. They are also more likely to provide scholarships that significantly reduce tuition costs while being renewable. Some colleges include yearly stipends or funds for study abroad programs.
On top of waiving tuition for 5 years and providing 4-years of undergraduate housing, the University of Alabama National Merit Scholarship® includes a $3,500 per year stipend and a one-time allowance of $2,000 for summer research or international travel.
The University of Oklahoma still waives 100% of tuition for out-of-state National Merit Scholars® for five years. Students can also use the waiver toward any graduate or professional program if any funds remain after completing their undergraduate degrees.
If you’re willing to attend a less prestigious college, being a National Merit Scholar® could result in an actual “free ride” to college.
The table below lists 50-50 colleges for National Merit Scholars®. All expect to sponsor National Merit Scholarships ®this past year. Texas has the most schools with eight on the list. Indiana is second with seven schools. Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and South Carolina all tied for third with 5 each.
50-50 Colleges for National Merit Scholars®
|Name||Type||State||NMSC Expected Count for 22||Full-time Under-grads||Total price for in-state students 2020-21||Total price for out-of-state students 2020-21|
|The University of Alabama||Pub||AL||115||27,750||$31,050||$50,520|
|Texas A & M University-College Station||Pub||TX||110||49,442||$31,467||$58,024|
|The University of Texas at Dallas||Pub||TX||100||17,979||$30,744||$55,722|
|Arizona State University||Pub||AZ||85||57,485||$29,578||$47,668|
|University of Oklahoma||Pub||OK||75||18,564||$30,374||$45,755|
|University of Kentucky||Pub||KY||60||20,239||$31,546||$50,356|
|University of Arizona||Pub||AZ||55||28,556||$30,416||$54,443|
|University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||Pub||MN||36||28,989||$28,827||$47,125|
|Michigan State University||Pub||MI||35||34,588||$29,230||$54,536|
|University of Arkansas||Pub||AR||30||20,252||$26,176||$42,664|
|Purdue University-Main Campus||Pub||IN||30||33,575||$22,782||$41,584|
|Iowa State University||Pub||IA||25||25,271||$21,940||$37,128|
|Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College||Pub||LA||25||24,097||$33,394||$50,071|
|University of Iowa||Pub||IA||20||20,227||$25,376||$47,339|
|University of Kansas||Pub||KS||20||16,439||$25,476||$42,344|
|University of Missouri-Columbia||Pub||MO||20||21,344||$27,711||$45,993|
|University of Nebraska-Lincoln||Pub||NE||20||18,949||$26,250||$43,380|
|University of Utah||Pub||UT||20||18,749||$24,278||$42,883|
|University of Idaho||Pub||ID||15||6,323||$21,820||$41,056|
|Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology||Pri||IN||15||1,952||$71,664||$71,664|
|University of Maryland-College Park||Pub||MD||15||28,160||$27,807||$53,919|
|Rutgers University-New Brunswick||Pub||NJ||15||33,788||$33,002||$49,784|
|Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||Pri||NY||15||6,262||$75,824||$75,824|
|University of Tulsa||Pri||OK||15||2,819||$63,807||$63,807|
|The University of Tennessee-Knoxville||Pub||TN||15||22,914||$32,498||$50,898|
|Southern Methodist University||Pri||TX||15||6,616||$79,050||$79,050|
|University of South Florida||Pub||FL||12||29,650||$23,866||$34,780|
|University of Louisville||Pub||KY||12||11,598||$29,678||$46,024|
|West Virginia University||Pub||WV||12||18,726||$24,124||$40,468|
|St Olaf College||Pri||MN||10||2,916||$65,010||$65,010|
|Mississippi State University||Pub||MS||10||17,089||$25,904||$40,944|
|University of Mississippi||Pub||MS||10||14,839||$25,762||$42,034|
|University of Cincinnati-Main Campus||Pub||OH||10||24,301||$28,150||$43,484|
|Oklahoma State Universit||Pub||OK||10||17,624||$24,239||$39,759|
|University of Dallas||Pri||TX||10||1,424||$62,400||$62,400|
|University of Houston||Pub||TX||10||28,966||$24,631||$36,847|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||Pub||WI||10||30,063||$27,158||$55,046|
|Missouri University of Science and Technology||Pub||MO||9||5,412||$23,887||$41,838|
|University of South Carolina-Columbia||Pub||SC||8||26,174||$29,121||$50,361|
|University of Oregon||Pub||OR||6||16,400||$30,312||$55,764|
|University of Alabama at Birmingham||Pub||AL||5||10,402||$27,630||$39,462|
|University of Alabama in Huntsville||Pub||AL||5||6,730||$28,266||$40,662|
|Kansas State University||Pub||KS||5||14,497||$25,890||$41,766|
|North Dakota State University||Pub||ND||5||9,339||$23,246||$27,549|
|The Pennsylvania State University||Pub||PA||5||64,607||$37,396||$54,460|
|Santa Clara University||Pri||CA||4||5,478||$72,984||$72,984|
|Ouachita Baptist University||Pri||AR||3||1,502||$41,650||$41,650|
|Colorado State University-Fort Collins||Pub||CO||3||19,944||$25,466||$44,187|
|Florida Atlantic University||Pub||FL||3||16,617||$24,775||$37,220|
|Florida International University||Pub||FL||3||27,551||$23,803||$36,201|
|New College of Florida||Pub||FL||3||646||$21,048||$44,076|
|Illinois Wesleyan University||Pri||IL||3||1,622||$65,676||$65,676|
|Loyola University Chicago||Pri||IL||3||10,924||$63,640||$63,640|
|University of Evansville||Pri||IN||3||1,716||$55,196||$55,196|
|Louisiana Tech University||Pub||LA||3||7,854||$23,847||$30,589|
|University of Maine||Pub||ME||3||7,847||$26,230||$47,020|
|Michigan Technological University||Pub||MI||3||5,294||$31,349||$51,651|
|Gustavus Adolphus College||Pri||MN||3||2,220||$61,299||$61,299|
|University of St Thomas||Pri||MN||3||6,126||$62,476||$62,476|
|Saint Louis University||Pri||MO||3||6,847||$64,892||$64,892|
|Truman State University||Pub||MO||3||3,687||$22,284||$29,644|
|Montana State University||Pub||MT||3||12,026||$23,059||$42,789|
|University of North Dakota||Pub||ND||3||7,173||$24,498||$28,768|
|University of New Mexico||Pub||NM||3||12,124||$23,865||$40,203|
|University of Nevada-Reno||Pub||NV||3||14,323||$26,252||$41,906|
|Stony Brook University||Pub||NY||3||16,586||$27,743||$45,413|
|Ohio University-Main Campus||Pub||OH||3||14,676||$30,764||$40,558|
|The College of Wooster||Pri||OH||3||1,921||$68,650||$68,650|
|University of Dayton||Pri||OH||3||8,314||$62,220||$62,220|
|Lewis & Clark College||Pri||OR||3||1,812||$71,692||$71,692|
|University of Pittsburgh||Pub||PA||3||18,298||$35,147||$49,174|
|College of Charleston||Pub||SC||3||8,466||$31,153||$51,483|
|Tennessee Technological University||Pub||TN||3||7,834||$25,166||$35,198|
|Abilene Christian University||Pri||TX||3||3,297||$53,672||$53,672|
|Texas Tech University||Pub||TX||3||29,010||$27,156||$39,426|
|University of North Texas||Pub||TX||3||26,353||$25,386||$35,202|
|Virginia Commonwealth University||Pub||VA||3||18,734||$32,997||$54,335|
|University of Puget Sound||Pri||WA||3||1,830||$69,661||$69,661|
|Washington State University||Pub||WA||3||22,315||$28,520||$43,463|
|Western Washington University||Pub||WA||3||12,622||$25,805||$42,563|
|University of Wyoming||Pub||WY||3||7,783||$20,790||$34,530|