No matter which higher education institution you choose to attend, you’ll do better if you plan ahead — and ask the right questions — in order to get the maximum college financial aid.
“The first question to ask a school is: ‘What kind of financial aid do you offer?’” says Pamela Mason, the Senior Associate Director, Office of Financial Aid & Educational Financing, at Columbia University.
Brown made her comments at a breakout session called “Financing Your Education” held for students and parents during a recent fall Open House on Columbia’s campus.
There are two types of financial aid students can get for higher education from colleges and universities: need-based aid and merit aid.
Differences Between Need-Based Aid and Merit Aid
Unless you come from a very rich family that can easily afford to write a check to cover the full cost of college for four or more years, you will require some kind of need-based aid to help pay for school.
Need based aid is tied to your family’s economic circumstances, and it takes into account factors such as income, savings and personal assets.
Merit-based aid is completely different. You can be ultra rich or dirt poor and still qualify for merit-based aid, since it is awarded based on personal accomplishments, top test scores, a stellar GPA, special athletic ability or other talents and unique skills.
“Columbia offers need-based aid only,” Mason says, adding: “all schools in the Ivy League only offer need-based financial aid.”
In addition to the eight Ivy League institutions in America, a few dozen other top colleges and universities — including Amherst, Barnard, Colgate, Georgetown, Holy Cross, MIT, Stanford, Tufts, Vassar, Wellesley and Williams — also do not offer merit aid.
As I explain in College Secrets, this is very important for families of all income levels to understand, especially if you haven’t saved a lot for college or if your family doesn’t have a lot of disposable income and you were counting on institutional scholarships to help pay for school.
The good news about elite schools that don’t offer merit aid is that they typically provide very good need-based aid to families, which can even help those earning between $100,000 and $250,000 per year.
Some of these schools, like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, even have “no loan” pledges, while other top-tier institutions, such as Brown, have “limited loan” pledges, meaning that their student loan packages will either not have any loans — or loans will sometimes be capped at low, reasonable levels for low-to-moderate income families.
For these reasons, high-achieving students from low-income and middle-class families should not make the mistake of automatically striking certain schools off their college list just because a school doesn’t offer merit scholarships.
Likewise, excellent students from more affluent families should also still consider private and public schools that don’t offer merit aid, as long as those institutions provide strong need aid.
But if finances are an issue in paying for college, make sure that you have several institutions that offer merit aid on your list of target schools. It may even be wise to focus mostly on schools with merit aid, if those institutions are also a good fit academically and personally.
Colleges and Universities That Offer Merit Aid
Here are some of the country’s top colleges and universities that do offer merit aid:
New York University
University of Chicago
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Southern California
University of Virginia
University of Texas at Austin
Obviously, this list is not all-inclusive. You’ll have to do your own research to find out whether a school offers merit aid, in addition to need-based aid. To get started, check out MeritAid.com; it maintains a list of colleges offering merit scholarships.
Find Out How Many Students Get Merit Aid
Also, realize that simply knowing that a school offers merit aid isn’t enough.
You should also inquire about what percentage of students actually receive merit aid in order to get a better handle on your chances of nabbing these institutional dollars. With just a little bit of homework, you’ll discover that the level of merit aid awarded — and how it’s granted — can be all over the place.
For example, at Boston College and John Hopkins University, only about 1% of incoming freshmen receive merit scholarships.
Wake Forest says it gives merit aid to less than 3% of incoming students.
Meanwhile, the University of Chicago reportedly doles out merit aid to 16% of freshmen, but the school does not award any merit aid to upperclassmen.
The University of Miami grants merit aid to nearly 25% of incoming students.
But for its part, the University of Southern California offers a wide variety of merit aid.
The school recently gave merit aid to nearly 30% of first-year students, including full tuition scholarships to more than 100 first-year students and half-tuition awards to more than 200 incoming freshmen.