Looking for advice in Merit aid for a top 1% student

I’m sure this will come as a shock to a lot of people here but college is ridiculously expensive (yes, I’m sarcastic by nature). My daughter is graduating in 2020, and we are looking for schools to apply to, with the concern not being which colleges she will get accepted to, but instead which colleges we can afford.
Most college calculators tell us our EFC is anywhere form $30K to 40K per year, which is about 1/3 of our after tax income and more than double our annual mortgage payment. There’s no way we can afford that, and there’s no way we’re taking out loans and mortgaging our (or our daughter’s) future to cover that cost. We need that number to be around $15K.
Fortunately, it looks like our daughter will qualify for merit aid, so we are targeting schools with generous merit aid that also have great engineering programs (right now she’s looking to major in Chemical Engineering). I’m hoping to get advice from folks who have gotten merit aid and/or can offer suggestions on schools to target.

Her stats :
ACT : Taken once, scored a 35 in her junior year
SAT Subject tests : A perfect 800 in both Math II and Chemistry
Grades : Has never received a grade lower than an A in almost exclusively honors, AP, or post-AP classes
Classes : Senior year, taking AP Computer Science, AP Physics, Post AP Calculus 3, AP English Language, and Honors Spanish 3. She has already taken AP Calculus BC, Post AP Calculus 2, Honors Chemistry, AP Chem, and Honors Physics.
AP Tests : scored a 5 on all 3 tests taken so far – Calculus BC (taken as a 15 year old sophomore), Chemistry, and English Literature. We expect a 4 or a 5 for her 2020 AP tests for Physics and English Lang.
PSAT/NMSQT : Scored a 1490/1520 (Perfect 760 Math, 730 RW), for a selection index of 222. 98% of the time, this score would qualify her as a NMF. But in her case, she lives in California which has a cutoff of 223. So if she lived in 47 other states, or even if her Math and RW scores were switched (RW is weighted higher than math, so this would have given her a SI of 223), she would qualify. But it looks like the perfect storm hit and she will not. Yeah we were both very salty about this!
National Hispanic Recognition Program (NHRP) : Thanks to my wife, our daughter is between 25% and 50% Mexican, which qualifies her for the NHRP
Extracurriculars : Ice hockey – she has been playing for 13 years now, and has flown over 120,000 miles in the last 4 years for tournaments and showcases. Just missed going D1 and possible athletic scholarships. Was recruited by several D3 NESCAC schools, but we had to turn them down for 2 reasons – (1) They are liberal arts schools that don’t offer engineering, and (2) they only offer need based aid – no athletic or merit aid. She also plays 2 other varsity sports.
Finally, her current school is a private prep school in Massachusetts – thanks to a very generous merit/athletic/financial aid scholarship, we only have to pay about 15% of the cost of attendance there.

We’re bucking the “only apply to no more than 10 schools” advice and planning on applying to many schools (25-30) to increase the chances of a good merit aid award from at least one of them. Our daughter is not picky at all about where she attends college. We have identified 6 reach schools, 3 safe schools, and 15-20 target schools, where I’m using these terms not in her chances of getting in, but in our chances of affording them. For us, a $2500 investment in college application fees is worth it if it saves us well more than that in merit aid.

Reach : Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford. None of these schools offer merit aid, so if she gets into any of these schools the chances of us being able to afford them are very small and we will likely have to turn them down. But you never know.

Safe : Three UC schools (UCLA, UCSD, UC Irvine). If all else fails she can get in-state tuition at UC Irvine and live at home which will meet our $15K target.

Target : Here’s where I’m looking at schools with good engineering programs that seem to offer lots of merit aid. Our list is narrowed down to (yes narrowed down) : USC, Harvey Mudd, Franklin Olin, Colorado School of Mines, Rose Hulman, Virginia, Rochester, Boston University, Northeastern, Johns Hopkins, RPI, RIT, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Stevens Inst. Of Tech, Miami Ohio, Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, Maryland, Kentucky, and Arizona State. We have omitted several good engineering schools (such as Carnegie Mellon) because they don’t seem to offer much merit aid.

So, if you’re still with me at this point, I’m hoping to get advice from those who might have experience in this area. How generous are schools with their merit aid? I read that she might qualify for a full ride at several schools, but how real is that?
Another big question, do schools stack financial aid and merit aid? For example, if after the school’s financial aid offer our COA would be $30K, and she gets $20K in merit aid, does that really mean that it would cost us $10K to attend? Or would the school simply reduce their financial aid offer and it would still cost us $30K to attend?
Also, has anyone had luck with outside scholarships, such as those found on Fastweb? Or getting merit aid with the NHRP?
And, perhaps most importantly, what am I missing that I haven’t thought of?

Thanks in advance. Unless the replies to this post are crickets chirping and tumbleweeds, I’ll try to keep it updated with our outcome, which we’ll slowly discover during the next 8 months.

Good luck with your search! My daughter is looking at some of your target schools. From what I understand, although Vanderbilt is known for giving out a fair amount of merit aid, their $5000 dollar NMF scholarships counts for a lot of it.

So- I can speak with a little bit of empathy, I have a similar academic stat kid, although he doesn’t have as many of the ECs. Many of your schools were on his original list. And, he is interested in Chem engineering. There are a number of schools with very good automatic merit (Alabama gets mentioned a lot on the forums) with full tuition for her stats. Ole Miss, Arizona, Univ New Mexico, Alabama Huntsville etc. You can look at their websites and know what merit her scores would generate. I know that Ole Miss stacks, not sure on the others. All are ABET accredited, which many people on this forum will say is the great equalizer for engineering programs. Also, they all have honors programs/ colleges which can create a very personal education environment.
I think what you seem to be looking for is the merit piece on higher tier engineering schools. A few of those also remain on our list, but we are counting on zero merit based on stats. So- I don’t know if I actually helped you at all! :slight_smile: If you are willing to explore lower ranked schools, and still get a great engineering education, try looking at those ones that I listed. One nice thing is that UA, UNM and Mississippi have rolling admissions, so you can know very quickly.
Edited to add: these are valid for OOS students, not just in state

Typically speaking, the OOS public flagships are not great for merit. My D got just a meager amount from UMD CP and I don’t think you’ll see much as an OOS applicant at GT, VA, or UIUC. And, as much as it pains me as my daughter is there and we love it, take Purdue off your list. It’s very unlikely she’ll see merit money as an engineer. They just don’t need to attract students to the program.

JHU, is uber competitive. Not a target. That said, I would keep them on your list and switch out one of the reaches (if it were me, I’d ditch Harvard for a prospective engineering major).

RPI is generous with merit aid but with a $74K COA, I doubt you’ll get below your $15K threshold.

For the engineers in my D’s circle they saw the most money two cycles ago at:
Iowa State
U of Pitt (but your D would need to apply now. Like right now as they are on rolling admission)
U of Cincinnati
U of Akron

Also run the net price calculator for Clarkson U. They have a solid engineering program and your D may see big merit money there.

I think your D will also see good merit at Rose Hulman and Mines.

Just a note, the more competitive the school, the more competition for the meager number of merit awards.

In terms of how school’s will determine how to distribute aid, it seems very school specific. Hopefully some one more knowledgable about the financial aid side will chime in.

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What else has your D done besides hockey and 2 other sports?

If you ran the NPC for the reach schools and they are giving you $30-$40k, which you don’t want to/can’t pay, there’s no reason to apply. You won’t magically get a lot more than the NPC is showing.

The same goes for the target schools (many of which are reaches as well). Most of those won’t come in at anywhere near $15k.

My suggestion would be to find some automatic merit schools like Alabama, and then add some competitive merit schools. You will need at least a full tuition scholarship. Don’t bother with any school that doesn’t have that as a possibility.

I totally agree with this. Don’t waste time applying to schools you know you can’t afford. Don’t underestimate the amount of work it’s going to take for your D to apply to all these schools. It’s not just write one essay and press click. My D applied to 8 schools and had 19 college specific and honors essays to write.

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How much CAN your afford? Per year?

University of Alabama will give your daughter very decent merit aid. Great engineering school with lots of OOS students attending.

Have her apply to University of Pittsburgh…now. The early birds have the best chances of getting merit aid from this school.

For something smaller, look at Denison…also in Ohio.

I’d also add Case Western to your list…and delete something else.

As a CA resident interested in engineering…does she have CalPoly SLO on her list? If not…add that.

I think applying to 25 colleges is way over the top even if you are chasing merit. You want your kid to be able to do a great application to these colleges…not a half baked one. Try to vet these schools more carefully.

Example…Boston University…the best award they give is the Trustee which is highly competitive and requires an application and interview…and if received…is full tuition. You would still be paying room/board which is not cheap at BU…or off campus in Boston.

Regarding stacking awards…this depends on the college. Some stack merit and need based and others do not. You need to inquire at each college about this.

Outside merit awards…all of these MUST be reported to the colleges…and these outside scholarships will reduce your need, and therefore will reduce your need based aid in most cases. Again…school dependent…but most colleges will not reduce your family contribution first…they will reduce your kid’s aid.

If $40,000 is 1/3 of your family income, then your income is in the $120,000 a year range, right? Is that your net or gross income? If it’s your gross income, your kid might receive some pretty generous need based aid at places like Stanford, Harvard and Princeton. What do their net price calculators say your net costs would be?

I’m assuming you are not self employed, and don’t own any real estate other than your primary residence…and that the parents are married. Is this correct? If not…the net price calculators might not be accurate.

And lastly, I think some of your target schools are really reaches. University of Virginia, USC, Johns Hopkins, Harvey Mudd, Vanderbilt, really they aren’t a slam dunk for your kid. These are competitive schools. The very few (if any…I think some of these don’t give merit) merit awards will be highly competitive. These schools give primarily need based aid.

Where did you read she might qualify for a full ride from the lists you gave?

OP’s income is closer to $200k than $120k since OP said take home pay. The super reaches won’t come down to $15k given that income.

Some answers to some questions:

  1. Very few schools allow you to "stack" (combine) merit and need-based aid to reduce your EFC (expected family contribution). You will need to check with each individual school to find out their specific policy but the safe expectation is that every school will expect you to at least pay your FAFSA EFC (if not more). The only time that shouldn't be expected is if the merit awards (alone) offered by the school would reduce the cost of attendance to below your EFC.
  2. Very few schools offer to meet full-need. When it comes to out-of-state public schools, many do not promise to meet need for OOS students (for an example - see California). Again, you should check to see what each specific school has as policy.
  3. Illinois is notoriously stingy with merit aid; if you are looking for a full ride or just a merit award - I personally think you would be wasting your time applying to Illinois (speaking as Illinois resident). Their engineering department is strong enough to not need to pay for high stat students, therefor they don't give a lot of money to anyone, let alone OOS students. The highest OOS merit award at Illinois is $10k per year. Drop Illinois unless you want to pay a premium to attend.
  4. Many schools on your list have merit scholarships that won't bring your cost down to $15k.
  5. A good option on your list is Miami of Ohio. Their highest merit award would bring the COA to about $15k a year (not including travel costs).

A piece of advice. If you truly cannot afford any of the schools on the ‘reach’ list - I would recommend NOT having your daughter apply. Every year on college confidential there are painful threads with incredible students who get accepted to the “dream” school which they cannot attend due to finances. If you’ve run the NPCs and your EFC at those schools is more than you can pay - there won’t be a fairy tale ending of affordability. Again, those reaches don’t need to sweeten admissions offers with money, and they have more applicants than they can shake a stick at.

Engineering is engineering at every accredited engineering college. Find the ones that give money - University of Alabama should be on that list if money is important. Incredible program…and the school has poured so many resources into their STEM programs.

Good luck, your daughter sounds like a very smart, very accomplished young lady who will have plenty of options if you do a bit more research into merit money.

Seems like wasted applications if their NPCs say clearly unaffordable and there are no merit scholarships.

I would not call them safe for engineering majors, although a 4.0 unweighted GPA in hard courses certainly puts her in a very competitive position. (UCs strongly emphasize grades/GPA relative to test scores, although her top-end test scores do help some.)

Other California publics with chemical engineering include CPP, CSULB, SJSU, UCB, UCD, UCR, UCSB.

ASU has a scholarship estimator here: https://scholarships.asu.edu/estimator
But there are also scholarships at UA: https://financialaid.arizona.edu/types-of-aid/scholarships/freshman-transfer (scroll halfway down for non-Arizona resident awards)

For ASU, https://barretthonors.asu.edu/admissions/national-scholar says that NHRP is included in “National Scholar” (which makes scholarships significantly better).

Note that the Arizona publics looks like they could be automatic admission for her (also check for any higher standards for her major by following the applicable links):

CPSLO does not have chemical engineering.

As far as I know, WPI is still interested in increasing the percentage of women in their student body. For the last couple of classes the number of women has climbed to 42%. The return rate on acceptances for women has jumped in the last few years and that may be a reflection of the FA awards. For the last two years the acceptance rate for women has been over 50% and the acceptance rate for the general population runs about 42%. A young lady who just graduated this year had received a large merit scholarship and has already started her PhD studies in BME at JHU this summer… a full ride!

The academic profile of the student body matches Stevens and RPI. WPI places more emphasis on grades than test scores. The average entering students have unweighted secondary GPAs of 3.9/4.

They have a women’s hockey club at this division III University. The strongest women’s sport is Crew. See https://www.wpi.edu/project-based-learning/wpi-plan. They usually have the lowest loan default rate in New England. This is not a mandatory co-op program, but is an interdisciplinary program focused in STEM. I was curious as to why it did not make your list.

WPI '67

@blossom or anyone with engineering info…

Does this student NEED to major in chemical engineering. @blossom has sometimes pointed out that a student can major in something else and still reach their end goal (and yes @blossom has not really posted about engineering). But my point is…what is this kid’s end game? Why so specific to chemical engineering? It’s very possible that the end game could be played with a different engineering major.

Depends on what the parts of the cost of attendance are. Some colleges will apply merit scholarships first to student contribution (the amount of student loan and student work that they expect) before replacing grants. Some which do not meet need (as they define “need”) will apply merit scholarships to unmet need before replacing grants. But parent contribution is typically the last to be reduced. Each college may have a different policy. Contact each college directly if it is not clear from its web site.


https://financialaid.stanford.edu/aid/outside/ . Stanford assumes a $5,000 student work contribution. The first $5,000 of outside merit scholarships replaces that, but outside merit scholarships beyond that replace Stanford grants before reducing parent contribution.

Sigh, you’re killing me! A prep school female hockey player with those stats! Yikes. If she doesn’t deserve merit $, I am not sure who does! As the mother of a male version (but only one other sports besides hockey and definitely not recruited by any D1 teams), the real problem here is the engineering major. Chem eng works in her favor, not nearly as competitive as CS. But the engineering major is extremely limiting. The kind of schools which would throw money at her don’t have the major she wants. I’m spit balling here a bit, based on kids I know. I think she should look very hard at Clarkson. Might sound crazy, but I think of the super reaches, MIT is your best bet, I think.
Notre Dame? They have engineering and do love athletes.
I know Miami of Ohio and Ohio State the best. Miami is super rural, a lovely place, and she would be a superstar there. Chem Eng is a targeted major for ohio’s merit Scholarships. Would not be shocked by a full ride there. Ohio state is more appropriate for her achievement level, and has a very strong chem eng dept. They do give very large merit awards to some OOS students. The other school to check out is U of Cincy. I know several kids, but all instate, who pay in the hundreds of dollars a year in tuition and they don’t have your D’s stats.
Keep in mind that after the first year, generally students can get a decent paying internship. Earning $2k in a summer is very doable. My son is almost certainly attending OSU as a chem eng major for the class of 2024. Feel free to PM me with any specific questions you have on the Ohio programs.

Your daughter sounds very special. I just have to believe there is a strong school or two where she is just what they are looking for.

I don’t understand your comment that she ‘just missed D1 scholarships’ for hockey. It’s not like there is a cut off (like with the NMF) and those below the line get nothing. Now many of the best hockey teams are also at the best engineering schools (ex. Wisconsin, BU, Northeastern) so it might be difficult to be recruited, but still worth a try.

Wow, tons of awesome advice already! Thanks! And lots of love for Alabama - I will do my research on them!

Several of these posts have raised additional questions. I’ll start with one such question and probably post others later on. Here’s what I see at several college websites - I’ll use Kentucky’s as a good example (which is similar to ASU, BU, and Northeastern):
Otis A. Singletary Competitive 3.80 33 ACT or 1490 SAT Full out-of-state tuition + housing stipend**
Patterson Selective National Merit Finalist or National Hispanic Recognition Scholar; National Merit Finalists must list UK as college choice with National Merit Scholarship Corporation Full out-of-state tuition + housing stipend**
Unweighted. *Housing stipend of $10,000 per year is available for students living on campus in a UK residence hall during the first two years.

So they state for a 3.8 GPA and above and 33 ACT or above (both of which are met) : “Full out-of-state tuition + housing stipend”. This is competitive, which they describe as : “Students must apply for admission, complete the competitive scholarship section of the admission application and submit all supporting documents by December 1, 2018, to have their application reviewed in this highly competitive program. A limited number of awards will be offered. Selected applicants may be invited to campus for interviews.”
How many is a “limited number of awards”? How many applicants are there? If there’s 20 awards and 100 applicants, her chance is 20%. If there’s 2 awards and 500 applicants, well as Lloyd Christmas said “So you’re saying there’s a chance”…

But then they also list the National Hispanic Recognition Scholars with the same full tuition and housing stipend award as “Selective”, which they describe as “Students must have completed the prestigious programs listed. Students must apply for admission by December 1, 2018. No additional application is required.” Does that mean as a NHRP Scholar she automatically receives this award - case closed done deal? In this case, they list in their COA that housing + books is $14K, so with this $10K housing stipend does that mean if she goes to Kentucky our cost is $4K? And if she then gets a $4K outside scholarship she goes for nada, zip, zilch? If this is true (which I somehow doubt it is), then financial aid does not matter one iota!

It just seems like schools’ websites are sufficiently (and probably purposefully) vague in this area, and that makes it really confusing and difficult to decide about applying.

If an awards says its “competitive” or that a limited number of awards are given…do NOT think this is a guarantee for your student. They might get the award…and they might not.

The Alabama awards are given based in stats…and everyone who has those stats gets the award. Guaranteed.

There used to be many more of these guaranteed merit awards…but they are fading.

I think University of New Mexico would come in at your price point. @WayOutWestMom your thoughts?

Most of your list will have to be dropped if you really do need to keep the budget to $15K, since you basically can’t pay anything towards tuition if you have to cover room and board. This is the key advice from @itsgettingreal17 “You will need at least a full tuition scholarship. Don’t bother with any school that doesn’t have that as a possibility.”

Apply to some guaranteed for stats schools like Alabama and then look at competitive full ride merit scholarships, in particular cohort-based ones which can offer a great experience (I started listing some here: https://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/2146201-cohort-based-competitive-merit-scholarships.html) and cross reference those schools with chemical engineering. Don’t bother with super reach need only schools since those will simply detract from the (significant) time you’ll need to invest in applying for the competitive full rides, and lead to disappointment if your D does get admitted.

We can afford $15K per year - it would be painful but we could do it. I would be comfortable with her taking no more than $5K per year in loans so that she graduates with $20K total in loans, which would put our max COA at $20K per year.

Our after tax (federal & screw-you California State) is around $120K a year.
All correct, and we have about $400K equity in our tiny 1250 square foot house, which is a part of what’s killing us. I don’t understand that - all that means is that we can borrow more money if we choose to refinance our current mortgage (which would be at a higher interest rate than it is now), or that we could sell our house and live in an apartment just to afford college. If the ability to more easily borrow money raises your EFC, then they should also look at your credit score and say “You have a high credit score and can get loans easier than those who have been irresponsible with credit, so you have to pay more for college!”. It seems unfair for the CSS Profile to take into account home equity, but that’s another topic for another time.