Merit Aid, Part 2: College and Scholarships Beyond Academics

I previously rambled on about basic merit-based scholarships and the ways they are awarded: Largely on academic record.  While those are the bulk of the merit awards, however, they are not the only ones.  No matter how incredible your academic record, there will inevitably be a time when you’re likely to be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school.  How is this possible?  Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.

Non-academic talent scholarships are probably the easiest to understand.  Athletic awards tend to be the best known, along with scholarships in the performing arts (and you can add forensics and other special extra-curriculars to that mix. Shameless plug: Mason’s forensics team continues to have one of the strongest winning records in the nation!  Of course, those tend to be focused on actual talent and what you can do for the team/program/department. So, the question is whether the school is looking for a basketball guard or a shot putter, a male dancer or double-reeded instrument player, etc.   These are almost always awarded by the individuals who run those programs: coaches, artistic directors, team directors, etc.  While college admissions offices will occasionally refer students, in general, you want to be in touch with the people who run that team/program/department directly to find out about any funding opportunities in your area of talent.  Note: Athletic recruitment is a bizarre and complex process – check out the NCAA clearinghouse website for more information.

There are two additional sources of merit-based funds, although neither is nearly as large as the academic and talent awards noted above. The first are donor-based scholarships administered by colleges and universities.  These, by and large, are created when someone decides to give money to an institution to assist some group of students they like, or who they feel are like themselves.  These can be as basic as strong students in a particular major, or as bizarre as students from a particular zip code with a certain hair color with experience in both quilting and raising bees.  Many of these awards are based on college performance (so open only to students already at the institution, which often excludes new freshmen and transfer students) or based on financial need (which I’ll go into in one of my next columns).  The awards that are open to prospective students are usually listed on the financial aid or admissions websites and/or, on less frequent occasions, in the university catalog.

Many external organizations also offer scholarships.  There are a variety of websites (including right here on to help search for college scholarships, and your school guidance counselor(s) often have lists of local awards.  Beware of any individual or organization that tries to get you to pay to qualify for these funds.  Most, if not all, are scams – the information on legitimate awards is readily available online and is nearly always free, although you will often have to hand over your contact information.

Oh, and there is one other way to get that “how in a rational universe is it possible for THAT KID to get a SCHOLARSHIP” feeling: There are an increasing number of offers from very expensive private colleges and universities billed as “scholarships” awarded to students who, to put it bluntly, are shocked to qualify for any award.  This is one of the great mysteries/super-secret marketing efforts of the college funding process. Many expensive schools know they can charge less and still make money.  Of course, it wouldn’t look nearly as impressive if they sent a letter out saying, “You’re not all that academically impressive, but we realize our cost is CRAZY high, and we need a certain amount of students paying SOMETHING to keep paying the gas bills to heat our jacuzzi, so here’s a coupon for a few thousand off our cost.”  If they were totally honest many would admit that you’ll still pay WAY more than many other schools, so it’s really like a lame coupon with an insufficient discount to match the higher cost. You can see how that kind of honesty might slow down enrollment.  It’s SO much better to just go ahead and call it a “scholarship.”

In addition, during the economic downturn we are all enjoying, some private institutions have gotten REALLY aggressive about these awards. One admissions director admitted (even bragged) that, when she realized in April institutional enrollment deposits weren’t what she had hoped, she sent out new, bigger awards to the people who hadn’t yet deposited.  What a great feeling that must be for their most enthusiastic and committed students that deposited early.  Those lucky students will get to pay more – but since they love the school, I’m sure they’re not bitter about that at all!

Next up – how the need-based aid process works, and how colleges and universities manipulate it (the better to serve you, or so we say).

Be seeing you.


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