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How to Find Merit Scholarships: Follow the Money, Part 2

(Part 1 showed how to identify colleges that are likely sources of merit money.)

Slug following the money to find merit scholarshipsNow that you know who has the money, you need to target those schools more likely to be giving it away. I do this by looking at information on institutional grants. This is money the school is giving the student and is usually the largest single source of financial aid for an individual student at private schools. Since IPEDS doesn’t require the school to distinguish between need and merit based grants, I also look at the percentage of freshman who receive the institutional grants.

Of the 97 colleges identified in Part 1, the percentage of students who received institutional grants ranged from a low of 28 to a high 100 percent. Of the bottom ten, all but two are public institutions. 23 colleges reported 100% of freshman receiving institutional grants-all private.

This number is especially useful when looking at private colleges. If a significant number of freshman aren’t getting institutional grants, that means they’re pretty much paying their own way, although maybe with the help of loans. More than likely, the money the schools are giving out is going to meet financial need.

Another sign that the college is targeting its institutional aid at meeting financial need is higher average institutional grants, generally over $30,000. After all, this isn’t just incentive money to get students to come and pay a discounted rate. This is money needed by financially needy students to cover the cost of attendance.

Among all colleges, there are 51 that had an average institution grant of $30,000 or greater for freshman and 27 offer no merit aid. Of the remaining 24 schools, only four provided merit aid to 10% or more of students without any financial need and one of those is the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. If you’re trying to find merit scholarships, you need to look elsewhere.

So why didn’t I just search on the percentage of freshman receiving merit aid? Because that data is collected through the Common Data Set and isn’t available for downloading. You can look up the information through some of the popular search engines such as Big Future and CollegeData, but you can’t download it for your own use. (Session 2 of the College Data Workshop covers the CollegeData website.)

There’s another set of numbers you should look at to get an idea of how generous a school may be with their merit aid-the percentage of freshman receiving non-federal student loans and the average amount of those loans.

First, why care about non-federal loans when trying to find merit scholarships? This number doesn’t include federal loans for students such as Direct Loans nor the PLUS loans available to parents. These are the loans that students take out to make the headlines, “college graduate with $200,000 in debt.” If a large number of students are taking out large loans, then there’s more than an average chance that the school isn’t generous with its merit aid.

It’s important to look at the percentage of freshman receiving the non-federal loans as well as the average amount. If only a small percentage of students are taking out the loans then the average size doesn’t really matter. It’s when both numbers are large, you want to pay closer attention.

You can see the list of colleges generated in part 1 with information on institutional aid and non-federal student loans in PDF format. Next week, I’ll go through an example to show how you can compare colleges.