How to Find Colleges That Give the Most Merit Aid – Follow the Money

follow the money

How to Find Colleges That Give the Most Merit Aid – Follow the Money

Published September 8, 2019 | Last Updated October 11th, 2023 at 10:58 am

follow the money

We’ve all heard the term “follow the money” but does it come to mind when you think about applying to college?

Probably not.

If you’re interested in finding merit aid/scholarships, following the money is one of your best bets for figuring out which colleges offer the most merit aid.

Many families approach the college process by finding schools they think will be a good academic and social fit for their student and figure out the finances after acceptances arrive.

Unfortunately, not considering a financial fit until they’re reviewing college costs after all the applications have been submitted, can leave a family with limited options.

Too often families wait when they receive financial aid offers to really understand how much college will cost and how (and if) they can pay for it.

Target the “Right” Schools for Merit Aid

The reality is, if you’re serious about finding a college that’s more affordable for your family, you’re better off targeting the “right” schools that are more generous with their scholarships, rather than trying to figure out how to rearrange your finances to receive more financial aid.

There are very, very few families who have enough in savings or can use money from their current income to pay the full cost of college.

In fact, according to financial writer Kim Clark, “Even affluent families can be ‘needy’ when college costs $65,000 a year.

So some colleges, state agencies, and scholarship foundations require the FAFSA to award scholarships and grants to middle- and upper-middle-class students attending expensive schools.

The most generous private colleges, for example, award need-based aid to some students from families earning more than $200,000 a year.”

So if you don’t fall into that category, you’ll need to figure out other options to cover college costs. A good place to start is finding ways to increase your student’s odds of receiving a merit scholarship and then researching which colleges offer the best merit scholarships.

High grades and test scores will help make your student a more appealing candidate but you’ll improve their chances of receiving merit aid even more by following the money and doing research BEFORE application deadlines.

The reality is, a student can’t get merit scholarships from a school he/she didn’t apply to.

Where Does College Data Come From?

As the term implies, if you’re trying to maximize your student’s chances of receiving merit aid, you’ll need to look for colleges that are more generous with their scholarship money. So, get out your computer and start researching.

The best data to help with this research comes from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education System) and the Common Data Set.

IPEDS is data the government requires of all postsecondary institutions that receive federal financial aid money under Title IV of theHigher Education Act.

The Common Data Set collects data under the collaborative arrangements made between higher education institutions and publishers, namely The College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report.

(Yes – this is part of the data that is used to make up the infamous USN&WR rankings.)

IPEDS data is publicly available from the government. You can use College Navigator, the government site to look up IPEDS data on individual schools. And The Common Data Set is available if a college decides to publish their specific information.

The collection of data in its entirety (from all colleges providing data to the Common Data Set) is not publicly available, but we have compiled the CDS for many schools all in one place.

Instead, you can Google a college name + the term “common data set” to find data from a specific college, if they have chosen to release their information online, which many schools have.

We have compiled the CDS for a number of schools as well. Just click here.

How Do You “Follow the Money” to Find Colleges Offering the Most Merit Aid?

Now that you know where the data comes from, what should you look for to “follow the money?”

  • Find out if a school even offers merit aid. It sounds basic, but that’s the first place to start. Some schools only offer aid based on financial need and nothing else. The Ivies are an example of schools that do not offer any merit-based scholarships.
  • Look for how many freshmen, without financial need, receive merit aid? This means there are students that do not have financial need (as determined by the college only), who are receiving financial aid in the form of merit scholarships.This data comes from the Common Data Set, which reports what percent of freshmen, which don’t demonstrate financial need (meaning their expected family contribution is equal to or higher than tuition) still receive merit aid from the school. Most likely, these students were in the top 25% (or higher) academically of the admitted class. That doesn’t mean your student has to have straight As and a 34 ACT. It just means relative to the school’s admission quartiles, your student is in the top quartile.
  • What is the average amount of merit aid granted? This data again comes from the Common Data Set, where schools report the average dollar amount of merit aid that is offered to freshmen. This ranges anywhere from $1000 to full tuition, but a fair number of schools offer between $10,000 – $20,000.
  • How many non-freshman, undergraduates receive merit aid and how much? Just because a college offers merit aid to freshmen, doesn’t mean they will continue to offer it to sophomores thru seniors. This is important to research since you don’t want to choose a school based on the freshman year offer, only to find out merit aid isn’t offered in subsequent years or it’s significantly decreased.

Of course, a lot of the data above, represents averages, meaning you may end up with substantially more or less than the given numbers.

Ultimately you won’t know how much merit aid you will get, until you apply. However, you can increase your chances for receiving merit money if you take the time to “follow the money” BEFORE you apply to any school.

Why Don’t More Families Use College Data?

This data is available, so why don’t more families use it? Unfortunately, most families just aren’t aware this type of data exists, don’t understand what the information means, and may not feel comfortable gathering the data from multiple sources.

College search websites use information from different sources and what the source is may not always be clear.

But the bigger problem is that search websites don’t allow users to search and filter on whatever data a user would like. Instead, searching is usually limited to data elements less closely related to financial information – like size of college, location, major, admissions selectivity, sports, etc. Search results also make it difficult to easily compare many colleges at once, like being able to glance down a spreadsheet or sort within multiple criteria.

[Read our review of the College Board’s Big Future ]

The data described above is just a sampling of what you can research and analyze to help you and your student develop a solid list of colleges.

Hopefully this type of approach will make you feel comfortable when your student will be applying to schools that are not just academic and social fits, but also financial fits as well.

How to Make Informed Decisions About College Choice

If families are going to make informed decisions, they have to have data to compare colleges in an easy way.

That’s why we offer our R2C Insights tool.

This is the essential guide for researching colleges and developing a list of affordable schools.

With data on over 1500 four-year colleges in one place you can filter, sort, and compare schools to find those that are most likely to offer your student either merit scholarships or need-based aid.

Other Articles You Might Like:

Merit Scholarship Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List, and Search Tool

Chasing Merit Scholarships and Surviving the Road to College

A Family’s Journey to Find an Affordable College




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