Merit based scholarships are used by many colleges to buy students that they really want. But with a very few exceptions, the most selective colleges don’t use merit scholarships and focus their financial aid on need based scholarships. This is because the most selective colleges get so many applicants that they don’t need to buy students.
Or that was what I thought until recently.
Several weeks ago one of my students received an early write letter from Stanford. Given the strength of many of my students that was not so unusual. Given the early write letter we knew that the student was one of the top students that Stanford wanted this year. But what was unusual was the financial aid award accompanying that letter.
Earlier in the year I had worked with the student’s father to get an estimated expected family contribution from the FAFSA and CSS Profile. And the student had received early admission to the University of Chicago with a financial aid award very consistent with what we expected. So the family was expecting something similar when they looked at the financial aid award from Stanford.
What they saw was a surprise. While financial aid policies differ from college to college and a variation of $5,000 and sometimes as much as $10,000 is not unheard of, Stanford was offering $14,000 more than the University of Chicago.
And the net price calculator on Stanford’s own website had the families expected contribution very consistent with what we had earlier estimated and with the sum received by the University of Chicago.
Now, I have had a number of students get accepted to Stanford in the past and while their financial aid packages were good they were nothing unexpected. So what happened here?
The only explanation I can think of is that Stanford really wants my student to attend and is willing to put their money on the line to encourage his attendance. And that is what we call a merit scholarship.
If anyone else has experienced something like this I would love to hear about it. But for now, it looks like even the most selective colleges are not above trying to buy students that they really want.