When it comes to paying for college, most families are looking for as much financial assistance as possible, but it can be challenging to determine which schools are more likely to offer merit aid. Thanks to a new free tool, that may be easier for students and their parents to investigate.
Neeta Vallab founded MeritMore after going through the admissions process with her own daughter. "Everywhere we looked, we heard 'Don't worry about the sticker price, most families don't pay that,' but when we realized we wouldn't qualify for need-based aid, it started looking like we might have to pay the full sticker price, which was daunting" she said.
Then she discovered the option of attending a college that offers merit aid, which consists of funds that colleges disburse at their own discretion to attract students who are high performers, have particular talents, or meet other institutional needs that the college may be seeking. "Merit aid includes about $8 billion to $10 billion that colleges use to attract the type of students they want," Vallab said. "This is a bigger pool than private scholarships, and the money doesn't have to be paid back."
In addition, she adds, merit aid is typically renewable, so students can usually get it for all four years of college if they meet the guidelines, which may include requirements like maintaining a particular GPA. "In this way, merit aid is also better than private scholarships, which are generally one-shot awards," Vallab notes. "There are exceptions of course, but those tend to be rare."
The problem, she found, was that the process of finding a school where her daughter's stats might qualify her for merit aid was cumbersome. "I sat in on a workshop where someone showed us a process of which schools are likely to offer your child merit aid and there were eight steps involved, including creating a variety of spreadsheets. I'm a software engineer so inherently I wanted to simplify that. I built myself a quick tool that we could use and share with friends and family, which cut the steps down significantly." That tool later became MeritMore, she said.
To use the tool, students will visit the site and enter their unweighted GPA and SAT or ACT score, as well as the geographic area where they'd like to attend college. Then the platform automatically returns results showing which schools are likely to offer merit money, as well as the average amount. The photo below shows the results that were returned after plugging in an ACT score of 33 and an unweighted GPA of 3.9, using the New England and Rocky Mountain regions as potential locations.
She designed the tool using the formula that many schools utilize when calculating merit aid, which typically involves offering merit money to students whose stats are in the top quartile of applicants. "The whole idea is to guide parents to better financial fit decision," she said.
"College is one of the most expensive investments you make in a lifetime outside of buying your home," she said. "So I thought about incorporating some of the tools you'd find on the better real estate search sites so users of MeritMore can slice and dice the data to find those financial fit gems."
In addition to using institutional data, MeritMore offers a separate tool where families can compare the aid they are offered with those of other families. "So far, we have about 2,000 records of actual offer data and that's all free to access and is based on what parents enter," Vallab says. Students and their families can compare their expected family contribution and stats to other students who have similar numbers and see what offers they received. "We're trying to bring more transparency to the black box of how aid is disbursed by colleges," Vallab said.
In addition, MeritMore offers a third free tool that helps families stay on top of all the tasks and deadlines required during the admissions process. "We have an application task manager and on one screen it has all the tasks and deadlines for all the schools you enter," Vallab notes. "You can remove or add tasks and it tracks everything as you complete it and gives you a status of how far along you are."
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