Using Data to Find Merit Scholarships

Using Data to Find Merit Scholarships

Finding merit scholarships doesn’t have to be like finding a needle in a haystack (although some search websites and colleges may make it feel that way).

There is plenty of data available to help families do the necessary research to find schools that are more likely to offer students merit scholarships.

Although there are no guarantees, why not put in a little time to understand and do the research to increase the odds of your student getting a merit scholarship? 

By finding those schools BEFORE your student applies, you’ll have more options of affordable colleges when decisions start rolling in. 

The data to start your research comes from two sources: IPEDS 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 the Higher 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).

These two data sources have information on colleges that will help you “follow the money” to find schools that are more generous with their institutional aid.

As you help your student create a list of potential schools to apply to, it’s important to make sure the list includes a good number of schools that have a higher likelihood of offering merit scholarships.

This is the type of research that needs to happen BEFORE your student applies, because after the applications are in, it’s too late and he/she will be left to choose from the schools that accept him/her with or without any merit aid offered.

So if you don’t include these schools in the mix now, you’ll be out of luck when admissions decisions come out next spring.


How Can I Get the Most Money for College?

Getting the “most money” for college depends on how determined you are at putting in the time and effort to do the research that is required to find generous college.

Frankly, doing the research is relatively easy, finding the data is not so easy.

But here’s the data that will help tell you if a college is generous:

  • Average Percent of Need Met

Colleges report this information, which shows how much of a student’s financial need a college can meet.

For example, if a family’s EFC (expected family contribution) is $25,000, but the college costs $60,000, then the student’s need is $35,000.

If a college reports they meet 90% of students’ need then the financial aid offer to this student would cover close to 90% of $35,000. This doesn’t mean all the aid will be free – most likely it will be a combination of loans, grants, and work-study.

  • Percent of Students Receiving Merit Aid

This information tells me what percent of students receive merit aid. It’s a good indication for finding a generous college, because if a high percent of the student body receives merit aid, the likelihood that my student will get merit aid increases.

  • Average Merit Award

Another good piece of information. I’d like to find a school that has a high average merit award number, like something close to $20,000 or more.

  • Average Net Price

This is the price that families pay after deducting their EFC and any aid they receive. If I calculate the Average Merit Award, as a percent of the Average Net Price, this gives me a good idea of how generous a school is – the higher the percent is, the more generous the school is.

With all the information above, you can get a good idea of how generous a college is by understanding how many students are receiving merit aid, what size the merit aid offer is, and what percent of the net price the merit aid represent.

We offer a college data tool with all the above information included, as well as important information from IPEDS.

Having all this information in one tool that allows you to sort, filter, and compare is beyond helpful and worthwhile.

Here’s what one parent told us about her frustration…

“I’m hoping I have missed some obvious place where I can do this…I am currently helping my DS make a spreadsheet that lets us compare schools on these basic variables – avg gpa, avg ACT, admissions rate, net price. I cannot do this on Naviance, College Navigator, Niche, College Hunch, or Big Future. Help! We have spent so much time manually entering information and are barely half way done. Is there some service that will let me do this painlessly? TIA”

As a solution to the above parent’s issues,  we offer our College Insights tool which helps organize all the data you need to do a thorough college search. 
It combines data from IPEDS (government data) and Common Data Set information in ONE place to sort, filter, and compare colleges the way you should to find affordable colleges and those that are generous with merit or need based aid.

If you’re still reviewing schools to find those that offer the most merit aid, our College Insights tool will make the process so much easier.














Debbie Schwartz is former financial services executive and founder of Road2College and the Paying For College 101 Facebook group. She's dedicated to providing families with trustworthy information about college admissions and paying for college. With data, tools and access to experts she's helping families become educated consumers of higher ed.