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Student financial aid: Guaranteed merit scholarships at colleges & universities

University of Mount Olive UMO NCICU GAR
University of Mount Olive UMO NCICU GAR
Sandy Clingman

College-bound seniors have until May 1 to decide whether they will accept or refuse a school's offer of admission. Some students weigh institutional prestige and rankings heavily when making their decision; some value smaller class sizes and easy access to professors the most; and for others, location is paramount.

Methodist University
Methodist University
Sandy Clingman

But increasingly, many students are making their final college choice based on financial considerations, according to the annual UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey of freshman.

The 2013 survey reports that more than 48 percent of students cited the importance of financial aid in making their decision, up 15% in just the past decade and at the highest point in the survey's 42 years.

Not surprisingly then, students who enrolled at their first-choice school hit an all-time low in 2013. According to the survey, over 62 percent of the students who were admitted to but did not attend their top choice said the institution they ultimately chose offered them aid.

Waiting to compare every aid package keeps financially needy students in limbo for much of senior year. Admission to their top choice school does not end their search; they need to compare costs before making their decision.

Taking out some of the guesswork are schools with websites that delineate aid upfront to stellar students.

Based on a student's academic record, these financial aid offers are automatic, meaning no other application besides the one for admission is required; guaranteed, meaning that all admitted students who meet the criteria will receive them; and renewable, meaning they will be awarded each year for four years when minimum requirements are met. (None of these awards are tied to the National Merit Scholarship Program.)

The aid comes in the form of merit scholarships at most of these schools; at a few, in the form of discounted tuition or housing or even stipends for various activities. Here is a sampling:

Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. Freshmen Scholarships range from $3,000 to $10,000 at this small, private liberal arts school. Transfer students are eligible for up to $5,000 per year.

Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. This unusual private school awards full 4-year tuition scholarships to all admitted undergraduates, valued at more than $100,000. At Berea, students are required to work up to 15 hours per week to get practical job experience and hands-on learning in their major.

Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. A "Fiske Best Buy" and "Kiplinger Best Value" college, Birmingham-Southern also awards merit scholarships for those with high GPAs but low test scores, and vice-versa.

Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio. Their merit award to Freshman Scholars of $3000, plus an additional $2000 for campus residents, makes CSU an economical choice for students from any state.

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, New York. Until 2014 this distinctive school, with undergraduate degrees in Architecture, Fine Arts, and Engineering only, boasted fully paid tuition for all students. Although financial shortfalls have plagued the institution, this year's incoming class will still receive an award of one-half tuition, for a savings of $20,000 annually.

Dominican University in San Rafael, California. Dominican offers a scholarship calculator to make determining your potential award easy. First Year merit scholarships range from $9,000 (2.5 GPAs) to $21,000 (3.8 GPAs.)

Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. A Barron's Best Buy school, where 99% of all students receive financial aid, Goshen awards up to $14,000 annually in merit-based scholarships to each qualified freshmen. With its private school tuition priced below the national average at $28,500, it's no wonder US News calls it "an exceptional educational value."

Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. Hiram recognizes academic achievement to "help students and families who deserve a private college education during a time of economic uncertainty" with $16,000, a tuition freeze and a tuition guarantee.

Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. ISU's website couldn't state it any more clearly: Indiana and out-of-state residents alike are eligible for Guaranteed Scholarships of up to $4000.

John Carroll University near Cleveland, Ohio. This private Jesuit school awards extensive merit scholarships ranging up to $22,500.

Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. A private school specializing in engineering, architecture, communications and management, Lawrence offers Freshman Academic Scholarships guaranteed at $6000 and up annually to students with 3.0 GPAs and minimum test scores. Transfer students, as well, can qualify for specific merit based scholarships.

Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. The metropolitan DC campus rewards both A and B students with Freshman Academic Scholarships worth as much as $15,500 annually. This aid potentially trims the private school's tuition by more than half to $10,600, an amount right in line with Virginia's 4-year public school tuition average of $10,387.

Maryville University in St Louis, Missouri. A consistently top ranked private school with just 2000 undergraduates offers Freshman Merit-Based Scholarships that include scholarships for students with B- GPAs.

Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Presidential Scholarships for residential freshmen are listed in a matrix, with amounts ranging from $13,500 to $23,250. Scholarship amounts for commuting freshmen, transfer students, valedictorians and salutatorians are also listed.

Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Miami's website chart specifies generous University Merit Scholarships ranging from one-half to full tuition payments. Even at the lowest award level, the scholarship brings out-of-state tuition down to most in-state levels.

North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Generous Freshman Scholarships are available based on a matrix grouping GPAs with test scores, starting with a $7000 award for 2.5 GPAs with a SAT 900/ACT 19 scores; and a FULL RIDE scholarship (tuition, room, board & books) worth more than $36,000, to students with 3.5 GPAs and 1100 SAT/24 ACT. Scholarships up to $13,500 are also available for transfer students.

Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Freshman scholarships range from $9000 to $21,000 and are awarded to applicants who have a minimum GPA of 2.7 and minimum SAT test scores in reading and math of 950 or an ACT composite score of 20.

Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Freshman Academic Scholarships for top students can include full tuition PLUS generous stipends for study abroad and other activities.

University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Out of state students who meet the December 15 priority deadline can receive up to full tuition (a value of over $95,000.)

University of Mount Olive in Mount Olive, North Carolina. Scholarships are awarded in tiers starting with 2.8 GPAs and standardized test scores of 920 (SAT) or 19 (ACT) and are in addition to any other institutional scholarships a student may qualify for, such as athletic or departmental scholarships.

University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada. The university rewards their academically talented freshmen with Presidential Scholarships of $5000 per year.

University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. If the west coast is on your radar, but out-of-state tuition seems impossibly high, consider Oregon. Top scholars from out of state can receive $8000 via the renewable Summit Scholarship.

Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. One of the Colleges That Change Lives, this small liberal arts school for men funds a Top Ten Scholarship of $17,500 to students from the top 10% of their class; and for those just below that criteria, a Top Twenty Scholarship of $15,000. One additional criteria: an early campus visit.

Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Note that Whitworth uses weighted GPAs (and will convert non-weighted ones) to determine awards of up to $20,000 annually for students with both a 3.75 GPA and a 2020 SAT/30 ACT score; or at the lower end, $12,500 for students with EITHER a 3.5 GPA OR a 1720 SAT/25ACT score.

In all cases, students will want to research these schools, take tours and investigate options. But for students who have worked hard in high school for academic achievement and are waiting for word about individual scholarships and awards, it's nice to have some financial assistance options they can count on.