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When the exciting day comes for students to receive their acceptance letters from colleges and universities, many contain a dollar amount that the student will receive as a merit-based admissions scholarship. Many students will also receive financial aid, but the approval process for financial aid comes with fewer questions, as there are national standards for determining who receives financial aid and a universal application–the FAFSA. Merit scholarships however, are nuanced and the selection process and awards vary from school to school.

“Each school has their own criteria that they use [to determine eligibility for merit scholarships], but the way that we do it at Pacific is we look at the student’s high school GPA. We also look at student’s test scores, so either ACT or SAT test scores,” said Leslie Limper, Director of Financial Aid at Pacific University.

Pacific University uses a very straightforward method of determining merit scholarship eligibility. The combination of an admitted student’s GPA and test scores are put into a formula that breaks students who meet scholarship levels down into five different scholarship levels: increments of $12,000, $15,000, $18,000, $21,000, and $24,000.

Pacific University is a small, private, four-year institution rooted in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. Contrast this with Duquesne University, which is a slightly larger, private, four-year Catholic university in Philadelphia. While the schools are fairly similar in structure, Duquesne has a different approach to merit scholarships.

“It’s about doing research to find out how much money you have to give certain subsets of students to enroll at your institution,” said Paul-James Cukanna, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Duquesne University. “There’s a science to it all. You look at conversion rates. We also think about not just getting students here but retaining them, and so there is a correlation between the amount of scholarship [money] that you give students coming in and the retention of students.”

Cukanna has worked in admissions for 20 years, and has seen the processes at both large public schools and more selective private schools. He shared the logic that goes behind making scholarship decisions for colleges.

“It has to be about your market position, because each of us has a different market position and dependent upon your market position you could be bullish and give less money or maybe you have to give more money to enroll students, and sometimes the behaviors of your competitors influence how much money you have to give,” said Cukanna.

He also explained why it’s necessary to differentiate the needs of different programs.

“Sometimes your strategy has to be major or program specific because each one of them can have different qualifications,” said Cukanna.

Cukanna gave the example of more impacted departments, such as the health sciences that have a large demand and a limited number of seats, reducing the need for scholarship money. On the other hand, a department that is less impacted and that the school has trouble enrolling enough students for may require that the school gives more scholarship money.

Due to these factors, merit scholarships are given based on some of the more traditional qualifications as well as segmented elements.

“Program of study is one [qualification, and then] how they perform academically for grades 9-12, and standardized test score plays a role. We also look at activities, what they’ve been engaged in in high school, and then we look at admission and access. When we’re looking at special populations we also consider that in the merit based or academic based monies,” said Cukanna.

Another piece to the scholarship puzzle is if admissions officers see a student as a good fit.

“The scholarships for this current year range anywhere from $10,000 up to $16,000. It’s not a system where an ACT and a grade point average equals a scholarship, it’s a holistic review. So we review students based on what major interest area they’re applying to, their extracurricular involvement and really the basis for the scholarships is, is this student a good fit for Bradley, and is Bradley a good fit for the student,” said Justin Ball Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bradley University.

Although these scholarships are largely based on a student’s success in high school, receiving some sort of merit scholarship is very common. All three schools reported awarding 92% to 98% of incoming students a merit scholarship. Many schools use a discount rate to determine the money given. Cukanna said Duquesne University uses an independent consultant to calculate their discount rate, which is the portion of the tuition dollars that is given back to students in the form of grant money.

“We’re trying to leverage the money that we do have to achieve correct enrollment, to meet mission, to provide access and choice, to make sure that our discount rate is controlled, to make sure that we position ourselves well on US news, all of these major surveys, we’re thinking about retention,” said Cukanna.

Among these, there are several goals colleges and universities have in awarding merit-based scholarships, and they are fairly consistent. From affordability to attracting talented students to simple numbers, the rationales for giving scholarships are dovetail with the goals of the institution at large.

“I think the big goal is to make Pacific affordable for our families. Then of course we’re always looking to enhance our academic reputation and offer scholarships to the best students who will really benefit from a Pacific education,” said Limper.

While Pacific University, Duquesne University, and Bradley University are all four-year universities, other schools like Miami Dade College, a community college, provide admission scholarship opportunities for students as well. The American Dream Scholarship is the college’s main admission scholarship, but unlike some traditional scholarships, the requirements are set up so that the scholarship will more directly benefit the local community.

“The requirements for the American Dream Scholarship is number one, for students who reside in the Miami Dade County, they have graduated from high school or obtained their GED in Miami Dade County, they need to be pursuing an associate’s degree, they also need to be enrolled full time for courses, they need a 3.0 weighted high school GPA, and college ready test scores,” said Iliana Patron, Director of the Miami Dade College Information Center.

The goal of the American Dream Scholarship are to target students who may not otherwise receive aid.

“Traditionally, students who are high achievers, straight A students, they have a lot of scholarship opportunities. If a student is low income, they have the opportunity of receiving the full Pell Grant from financial aid. But I think historically, the students in the middle are the ones who have been ignored. This scholarship helps fill that large gap,” said Patron.

The amount of merit scholarship money that students receive may seem random, but colleges and universities work to give students as much aid as they can based on their qualifications, interests, and overall fit for the particular school. As cost is a huge factor for a student deciding among educational paths, merit scholarships are an effective way colleges can lower the sticker price for students and collectively shape the make-up of their first-year students.