Public Colleges Offer Merit Scholarships to Recruit Students

on December 16, 2016

It’s hard to get more popular than UCLA.


In the last admission season, the state university in California attracted 92,698 applications.


Here’s one way to illustrate just how big UCLA’s application haul was:


UCLA received 73 percent more applications than Stanford. And 80 percent more than MIT generated.


There are plenty of other examples of the massive drawing power that brand-name state research universities enjoy.


The University of Michigan, for instance, processed 51,761 applications, which exceeded the freshmen applications that Dartmouth College and Brown University received combined. The number of students who applied to Michigan dwarfed interest in Yale by more than 21,500 applications.


About two-thirds of undergraduate students are enrolled in public colleges and universities.


Plenty of reasons exist to explain why state universities, and in particular, the most coveted ones, are so in demand.


For state residents, public universities will often be the most reasonably priced route to a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile plenty of affluent nonresidents are attracted to some of the most popular state research universities, such as the ones listed below, for their academic reputation, their desirable geographic location, their sports teams or a combination of these reasons.


  • Ohio State University
  • Penn State University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of California at San Diego
  • University of Colorado
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Virginia
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin


For nonresidents, however, some of the most popular public institutions will meet or even exceed the price tags of private colleges and universities.


With state sticker prices wildly different, the best way to shrink the cost of state universities for many families is to look not only at price tags, but also to check out institutional merit scholarships, which are awarded regardless of financial need.


Merit Scholarships at State Universities


Here are five things to keep in mind about obtaining a merit scholarship from a state university:


1. Merit money is plentiful.


You don’t have to be an “A” student or an in-state resident to capture a merit award from many public universities. Across the country, public universities have been sinking a growing amount of money into merit scholarships for residents, as well as outside students.


"Public flagship and research universities are in a fierce competition for the best students in the country and the wealthiest, and they are spending ever-increasing amounts of their institutional aid dollars to get them,” observed Stephen Burd, who is the author of a landmark study from the New America Foundation, entitled, The Out-of-State Student Arms Race.


“In this pursuit,” Burd added, “public universities are not the only ones to blame. In many cases, state leaders have slashed spending on higher education, forcing their public institutions to scramble to find alternative revenue sources -- making wealthy out-of-state students a prime commodity for cash-strapped schools.”


2. Understand what it takes to win a scholarship.


State universities rely heavily on academic statistics, such as SAT and ACT scores, grade point averages and sometimes class rank, to determine who receives their merit awards.


Universities make awards based on these academic figures because with their high volumes of applications, admission officers don’t have the luxury of evaluating teenagers holistically.


The more impressive a student’s academic profile, the higher the award will usually be at a particular public college. There are many state schools that will provide full-ride or full-tuition scholarships for their top recruits.


Small differences in test scores and/or GPA can make a significant difference in awards.


To illustrate this, I’m using the University of Alabama, which is one of the aggressive institutions in seeking out top students from across the nation.


An applicant with a 28 ACT and a SAT score of 1310-1340 with a GPA of at least 3.5 can earn a scholarship of $4,000 a year at Alabama.  Earn just one extra ACT point or 10 more SAT points and the award jumps to $13,000 a year.  An ACT of 32 or an SAT score of 1450 will generate a top award of $36,950 a year.     


Keep in mind that what it takes to win an award will vary dramatically by institution and receipt of merit money is not guaranteed to all eligible students.


At the University of New Mexico, for instance, a nonresident can qualify for a $15,000-a-year scholarship by earning an ACT score of just 23 and a 3.5 GPA or a 26 ACT and a 3.0 GPA.


3. Look off the radar for state universities.


Just like private colleges and universities, public colleges and universities that enjoy great popularity with nonresidents are more likely to price themselves accordingly. When looking at options, it’s smart to check the scholarship opportunities, as well as sticker prices.


Here’s an example:


University of Virginia’s tuition and room/board for nonresidents is $55,784. Only 2.4 percent of students at this premiere research university receive a merit scholarship and the average amount is $7,100. For an outsider lucky enough to snag one, the price for one year at UVA would be $48,684.


Let’s compare that with West Virginia University where tuition and room/board for nonresidents costs much less ($32,706). Seventeen percent of students receive merit scholarships with the average award being $2,382. Winning an award would bring the price down to $30,269.


You can see this pricing phenomenon repeated throughout the country. For instance, the tuition cost to attend University Michigan as a nonresident is $45,410 versus nearby University of Minnesota, not as popular a draw, which charges just $23,806. So, it can pay to shop around.  


4. Know where to look for scholarship requirements.


When hunting for merit scholarship, it’s often easy to discover what it takes to capture one at a particular institution. You can typically check a school’s admission website to see what kind of SAT or ACT scores and grade point averages are needed to get an award.


An easy way to find a school’s scholarship rules is to Google scholarships and the institution’s name. For out-of-state students, try Googling nonresident scholarships and the name of the university.


5. Forget about need-based aid.


If you’re hoping to find a bargain at public universities outside your state, you should forget about need-based financial aid. It’s extremely rare for state universities to give needy outsiders financial aid.


States institutions direct need-based aid to their own residents. And even then, need-based aid in general has been shrinking as state universities spend a growing percentage of money on merit scholarships.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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