College Rankings

Harvard Scholarships: No Such Thing

By no such thing as Harvard Scholarships, I mean no such thing as Harvard Merit Scholarships. So if you’re thinking you’ll be able to pay for Harvard based on your kid’s academic qualifications (after all, they were good enough to get into Harvard) you need to think again. The reward for your student’s amazing accomplishment is the acceptance letter itself. Any scholarships Harvard hands out will be based on financial need, not academics.

Download List of Colleges that Don’t Offer Merit Aid

Scholarships can be based on need or merit

The problem is that the term “scholarship” can refer to either need-based or merit-based awards. And let’s face it, it’s just easier to say, “Mary got a full-ride scholarship to Harvard” rather than “Harvard met Mary’s full need with need-based grants and work-study.” The fact is that Harvard is incredibly generous with its need-based aid so quite a few students can claim “Harvard Scholarships.” But they have nothing to do with merit.

Why am I even talking about Harvard scholarships? Because I want people to understand where to find merit scholarships and explaining why it isn’t Harvard gets people’s attention. Ultimately, Harvard isn’t the only college that doesn’t offer merit scholarships. You can see the list below. But let’s keep our focus on Harvard for a moment.

The Harvard Scholarships example

There are plenty of families with kids applying to Harvard, over 57,000 in the Fall of 2021. Plenty applied understanding the nature of financial aid at Harvard; in fact, quite a few didn’t care because they’re willing to pay full price. But the parents of some percentage of students who applied, thought that if they were good enough to get into Harvard, their academic performance would be rewarded financially with scholarships as well. Having heard something about need-based aid, they were thinking merit scholarships since that’s the term floating around in the college admissions process.

Chances are that their kids all worked very hard and “deserved” to be rewarded for their hard work. But who does the rewarding? Who is to provide the merit scholarships? And why doesn’t Harvard provide merit scholarships?

The purpose of merit scholarships

Without going into the history of merit scholarships, the reason they exist to the extent they do today is for colleges to provide incentives for students to attend their institutions. If you aren’t Harvard, how do you get kids with great academic credentials to attend your school? You offer them a scholarship to reward those great academic credentials.

From the school’s perspective, merit scholarships are an incentive. They are marketing. They actually call it “tuition discounting.” Students with the right credentials are receiving a coupon to attend their school.

Do you now understand why there is no such thing as Harvard scholarships? They don’t need to market their school. They already have more applicants with amazing qualifications than they can admit. Harvard has absolutely no need to provide incentives to attract students to apply.

And they are quite clear about it on their website. Harvard’s Frequently Asked Questions:

Are there any merit-based financial aid awards at Harvard?
No, we admit students based on their strengths and talents, but all Harvard-administered aid is based only on financial need, and we treat all admitted students equally in terms of their eligibility for that aid.

So no merit scholarships. But it’s no wonder people talk about Harvard Scholarships since the FAQ also includes:

How do you determine eligibility for Harvard Scholarships?
We determine your financial aid award based solely on your family’s demonstrated financial need. Our program is designed to help families across the economic spectrum, from low to upper-middle incomes. Aid is completely need-based and considers many factors, such as your family’s income, assets, size, and unusual expenses. There are no merit-based awards, and we have no preferential packaging policies that give some students more attractive awards than others.

The question asks about scholarships and while the answer talks about “awards” rather than “scholarships” it’s easy to see how people use the term Harvard scholarships even when it’s all based on need.

The fact is that if you get into Harvard, you better be able to afford your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as calculated by the Institutional Methodology because their won’t be any help from merit scholarships.

If you’re looking for colleges that will reward academic accomplishments with generous merit aid, then you need to find schools that don’t have their pick of the best students available. It means that you’ll need to avoid schools like Harvard. The following is a list of 55 schools that provide little to no merit aid. Many claim to meet full-need but not all.

Colleges that don’t Offer Merit Scholarships
Download List of Colleges that Don’t Offer Merit Aid

Name Type State Full-time Under-graduate % Admitted Avg % of Need met for Freshman % Institutional Aid Need-based
Amherst College Private MA 1,971 9 100 100
Babson College Private MA 2,551 25
Barnard College Private NY 2,959 11 100 100
Bates College Private ME 1,821 17 100 100
Boston College Private MA 9,749 19
Boston University Private MA 17,460 19 95 94
Bowdoin College Private ME 1,948 9 100 100
Brown University Private RI 7,082 6 100 100
Bucknell University Private PA 3,715 35 92 90
California Institute of Technology Private CA 987 4 100 100
Carleton College Private MN 2,032 18 100 99
Claremont McKenna College Private CA 1,411 11 100 96
Colby College Private ME 2,262 9
Colgate University Private NY 3,142 17 100 98
Colorado College Private CO 2,190 14 100 96
Columbia University Private NY 8,161 4
Cornell University Private NY 15,450 9 100 100
Dartmouth College Private NH 4,555 6 100 100
Davidson College Private NC 1,973 18 100 93
Duke University Private NC 6,838 6 100 91
Emory University Private GA 7,028 13 100 92
Franklin and Marshall College Private PA 2,127 38 100 99
Hamilton College Private NY 2,049 14 100 100
Harvard University Private MA 7,483 4 100 100
Haverford College Private PA 1,419 18 100 100
Johns Hopkins University Private MD 5,727 8
Lehigh University Private PA 5,375 46 97 95
Middlebury College Private VT 2,835 13 100 100
New York University Private NY 27,642 13 66.9 96
Northwestern University Private IL 8,438 7 100 99
Pitzer College Private CA 1,132 18 100 99
Pomona College Private CA 1,756 7 100 100
Princeton University Private NJ 5,240 4 100 100
Reed College Private OR 1,515 44 100 100
Rice University Private TX 4,156 9 100 94
Skidmore College Private NY 2,655 31 100 99
Smith College Private MA 2,554 30 100 94
Stanford University Private CA 7,645 4 100 98
Swarthmore College Private PA 1,649 8 100 96
Tufts University Private MA 6,509 11 100 100
University of Chicago Private IL 7,601 6
University of Notre Dame Private IN 8,956 15 100 95
University of Pennsylvania Private PA 10,106 6 100 100
University of Virginia Public VA 16,427 21 100 92
Vanderbilt University Private TN 7,042 7 100 90
Vassar College Private NY 2,498 20 100 100
Villanova University Private PA 6,812 25 82.1 90
Wake Forest University Private NC 5,391 25 96.9 91
Washington University in St Louis Private MO 7,348 13 100 95
Wellesley College Private MA 2,381 16 100 100
Wesleyan University Private CT 3,238 19 100 99
Wiley College Private TX 584 8 93
Williams College Private MA 2,135 9 100 100
Yale University Private CT 6,532 5 100 100


If the school posted its Common Data Set (CDS) information, I used the information from the financial aid section to calculate the number of non-need students receiving merit aid. If the CDS information isn’t available, I used the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)information to identify schools providing limited merit aid. Therefore, some of the schools do offer merit scholarships, but remember I said, “little to no merit aid.” Let’s take Duke as an example.

Duke Scholarships

Duke’s financial aid page lists ten, that’s right ten, different merit scholarship programs, nine of which students are automatically considered for. Definitely a sign of “Duke Scholarships,” right? Yes, but they should be considered rare. If you want to understand just how many merit scholarships we’re talking about, you need to visit Duke’s Common Data Set.

According to Duke’s 2021-22 Common Data Set, it awarded over $14 million in non-need-based aid. Sounds like a lot, right? It probably is to the 151 undergraduates out of 6,789 who received them. That’s just over 2% of undergraduates without need who received “Duke Scholarships” according to the Common Data Set.

Northwestern Scholarships

How about another, one that doesn’t post its Common Data Set information. If you’re wondering why not, maybe the financial aid information is a reason why.

A quick web search takes you to the Northwestern University Scholarship page. The page lists a variety of Northwestern scholarships, most that have a significant financial need component. And even though Northwestern isn’t posting their common data set information, you can get most of it from Under the “Financials” section, you’ll find that Northwestern reported 19 freshmen without need receiving an average award of $4,299. That’s out of 2,086 freshmen enrolled so we’re talking less than 2% of freshman without need receiving institutional merit awards.

Common Data Set

The only information that states the number of students without need receiving merit aid is the Common Data Set (CDS). It’s the survey used by US News Best College Rankings and other publishers to collect information not available from the Federal Government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). However, the reliability of the data is questionable and cannot be easily searched through the select number of college search websites that publish it. Approximately half of all schools post their CDS information online allowing students and families to look up the information themselves. However, it does make it difficult to compare schools which is probably the point.

Common Data Set Limitations

The Common Data Set has some obvious limitations in terms of identifying schools offering merit scholarships. One issue is that things are relative. When a school charges over $80,000 a year, a lot more high-income students are going to qualify as having financial need. Therefore, students who receive a merit-award which the school uses to address need, will not show up as a non-need student receiving merit aid. Theoretically.

The fact is that over the years I have found a dozen or so schools each year where the numbers simply don’t add up: the numbers of non-need students receiving merit scholarships exceed the calculated total number of non-need students. I’m sure there are plenty of others that I missed because if the number of non-need students receiving merit scholarships does not exceed the calculated total number of non-need students, I don’t have any math warning signs that something is not right.

For those who rely on the CDS information that states the amount of institutional aid is need-based or non-need based, you might want to check out some schools that claim their institutional aid is 100% need-based. In its 2020-21 CDS, the University of Kentucky listed all of its institutional aid as being used to meet need. Yet, its website lists non-need merit scholarships. Furthermore, later in the financial aid section of the CDS, it shows 1,377 freshmen without need were awarded non-need institutional scholarships. Then there’s the fact apparently none of the external sources of aid were listed as all being only need-based as well.

The University of Kentucky isn’t the only school with this problem. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville has the same issue. And then there are cases like The University of the Incarnate Word which shows a total amount of $5,000 under non-need based institutional aid but 58 freshmen without need receiving an average of $13,410 in institutional non-need aid.

So who do you blame? The schools for the sloppy reporting of something they don’t have to post anyway and probably would rather not have the public poking around in to begin with? The publishers who are collecting the data without some very basic quality control mechanisms in place and yet are making millions of dollars off of it? Or the public who continues to buy the information in the form of rankings every year?

Looking for Merit Aid/Scholarships

Ultimately, I consider the matter irrelevant. You don’t need the Common Data Set information to identify which schools are offering meaningful merit aid and which don’t. I won’t go into the specifics here but you can see the basic strategy at 4 Easy Steps to Find Colleges with Merit Scholarships.  The point of this post was to let people know that the hardest schools to get into do not reward the academic achievements with merit aid. Students can generally expect amazing need-based aid as defined by the school.

Colleges that offer generous merit aid or academic scholarships, do so because they aren’t as well known and are trying to attract students to their campus. They are by definition, not as competitive as the elite schools. Basically, the lower the acceptance rate, the lower the chances for merit aid.


Michelle Kretzschmar

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Michelle Kretzschmar

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