Financial Aid

Harvard, Stanford: Need and Merit Based Aid

Though the shift towards need based aid at elite universities has opened the doors of higher education to a much broader portion of the population, it is not universally beneficial. In fact, it has precluded certain segments of students from receiving much needed aid.

By and large, America’s most selective and prestigious universities are private institutions. Unlike state schools, private schools usually do not offer discounted tuition for in-state students and in most cases charge higher tuition.

While many people view Ivy League schools as outrageously expensive, their relative cost is highly dependent on the student and their family’s financial background.

Although some of these schools offer merit scholarships for high SAT scores, meteoric high school GPAs and outstanding extracurricular activities, many offer no merit aid at all. Instead, all financial awards are allocated on a “need” basis. Each student’s need is determined by various factors and is calculated by each school’s financial aid office using the information that students provide by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Given that each school’s financial aid office weights factors in a student’s (and their family’s) financial background differently, it’s important to apply for financial aid at each school you apply to if you are looking to maximize your award, as this will allow you to compare the financial aid packages that the different schools provide before committing to a decision.

While the intent of need based aid is noble and has proven advantageous for many, its relative benefit is student specific. For some, this aid provides the only viable means for financing a college education without going into extreme debt. At Harvard, for example, student’s whose families earn $150,000 annually or less pays nothing for their tuition. Harvard’s multi-billion dollar endowment also allows foreign students to be eligible for this aid, a practice that is not standard across the higher education industry. This generous plan means that for some students every year, going to Harvard is cheaper than going to one’s own state university.

For others, however, need based aid can be viewed as disadvantageous. Families in socio-economic strata barely higher than the school’s threshold might feel the financial crunch from the high tuition, yet are ineligible to receive aid. If college costs are a concern, these students should consider broadening the scope of their college search to look at institutions that could provide them with the opportunity to win merit aid.


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