This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow.
Our family doesn’t have any financial need so we knew going in that paying for college was all on us, and we acted accordingly.
For background, my daughter just got her final acceptance. She’s 13 for 13, all with great merit.
She was accepted to three “hidden ivies” and one “public ivy.”
I truly believe how we proceeded is the reason things went well, and I want to share what we learned along the way when it comes to chasing merit money, in case it can help anyone else.
How Chasing Merit Can Help Middle Class Families Finance College
Buyers and Sellers
Jeff Selingo’s advice was vital and guided what we did. His book, Who Gets In and Why is full of great info.
His site is rich in resources. He’s done a number of live videos with Road2College and his “Buyers and Sellers” concept is something everyone should learn.
Schools that are “Sellers” aren’t going to give much, if any, merit, no matter how great your child is. People will pay full price to be able to put the name of these schools on a bumper sticker on their car.
It’s a fact, and that information is out there. “Buyers” are far more likely to award merit aid, and there are great buyer schools out there.
With no financial need, we took all the “Seller” schools off the list.
It’s not worth the time and effort when you know the merit aid won’t be there.
Finding the Right Fit
Your student’s great stats can get great merit money, but you have to find the right school for those stats. Net price calculators are not enough.
You need to dig deep into the Common Data Set for schools. (Almost all schools have them, just Google the school name and “Common Data Set.”)
The information the Common Data Set provides is amazing. You can find the schools where your student’s stats are in the top 25 percent at a Buyer school, and that’s where the money is.
Fit is something I never thought of in terms of merit and acceptance until reading Selingo’s book.
Schools want kids to accept their offer and to stay all four years. It makes their ratings and stats look better.
I think this is part of why my daughter did so well. She’s a quirky, artsy, LGBT+ theater kid with rainbow-colored hair. We obviously wanted her at a school where she’d find her people.
But it turns out schools also want that fit, because again, if you stay and are happy the school has better stats. (And hopefully happy alumni will donate down the line.)
My instinct is, had my daughter applied to a conservative school that was Greek-life and athletics focused, she would not have been an ideal candidate because it’s pretty obvious she wouldn’t be happy.
The school would possibly consider that she might not accept their offer or would enroll and not stay, which hurts the schools rankings. We followed all the social media pages for schools, their clubs, housing, and dining, and would look at pictures they were tagged in by students.
This really helped give an idea of what students “fit” at what schools.
Do Your Research
All of this information is out there. It breaks my heart to read all the posts of students getting into dream schools, with zero chance of it working financially, even if stretched.
Often they are schools that are known Sellers that just don’t give merit. Sure, miracles can happen, but there are so many great schools with merit scholarships available, so we focused on them.
[Find colleges that match your preferences with our easy-to-use, online College Insights Tool. Filter, sort, and compare the results for information about merit scholarships, test optional, early decision, early action, need-based aid, and more.]
Those smaller private schools hand out some big money. All of a sudden the tuition of a $75,000-a-year private school can be reduced to the cost of your $25,000-a-year in-state option.
And again, that info is out there.
Make sure you have safety schools! And no matter what your student’s stats are, consider any school with an acceptance rate below 25 percent a reach.
Remember, these schools can fill every single seat in their class with a valedictorian who made a scientific breakthrough while playing four varsity sports and being president of six clubs, and volunteering 2,000 hours a year in between.
At some schools, even the most shockingly amazing students are simply the norm.
If merit is an important part of the equation for your family, hopefully this information is helpful in some way.
Again, we didn’t have financial need , so that was not part of the equation; we knew merit was the only money we’d see.
I’m afraid I can’t suggest exactly which schools you should look at, because here’s the thing, you have to put in the work specific to your child.
I’m more than happy to share my resources, experience, and what worked for us, and if you are so inclined you can use the resources and advice I shared, but nobody, aside from maybe a college counselor, can do this work for you and find the schools your child might have success with.
It took us many hours over many months to come up with my daughter’s plan.
Nobody can give you that info for your child off the cuff. You’ve got to do the work. But the return on your time and effort can be substantial.
Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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