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What Is 'Chasing Merit' and Why Are So Many Families Doing It?

In the span of a week, I appeared in a documentary, Exclusion U, and a segment for Nightline ABC News about the rising cost of a college education. Both the film and the segment highlighted students who face staggering debt to attend college.

While some elite colleges have generous need-based financial aid for students coming from lower-income backgrounds, most colleges are not that generous. Middle-income families are getting squeezed out of need-based financial aid and being asked to pay hefty price tags, like $70,000 to $80,000 a year. And many upper middle class families are just not willing to shell out that kind of money. That's why the term "chasing merit" was invented.

Chasing merit is a term that families of all income levels are using to try to make a college education more affordable. It means that families are intentionally creating a college list that has the highest potential for merit scholarships. Most, if not all, the colleges on a student's list who is chasing merit will offer generous merit scholarships. The chasing merit strategy eliminates students from applying Early Decision even though it can increase a student's odds of admission twice as much, three times, or more at a selective college. Early Decision is not an option for these students because a college is less likely or not likely to give an admitted Early Decision student a merit scholarship.
So instead, students apply to colleges that are known to give a lot of merit money to admitted students. These institutions are usually ones for which the students are objectively more competitive than the average admitted student. That is how a student can get more merit money—by having higher grades, more advanced curriculum, and better test scores for that college.
There are no consistent rules when it comes to merit scholarships, though. There are both public and private institutions that are extremely generous with merit scholarships and some that are not. A college determines whether merit scholarships are used in the admissions process. And most of the highly selective colleges choose to only use need-based financial aid. 
But here is a trick on how to determine how generous a college is with merit scholarships: Look up the list of merit scholarships on a college's admissions website and find out what they offer. For example, Vanderbilt University, one of the most selective colleges in the country, has merit scholarships unlike most of its peer institutions. However, Vanderbilt acknowledges right on its website that only 1% of all admitted students get one. Compare that to the University of Alabama which has a long list of scholarships for both in-state and out-of-state applicants. 
If you don't see details about merit scholarships on a college's admissions website, it usually means one of two things: either the college only offers need-based financial aid or they don't offer much in terms of merit. Call the admissions office and ask, "What percentage of admitted students get a merit scholarship and what is the average merit scholarship offer?" Knowing that information is very revealing about a student's odds of getting a merit scholarship and how much it will be.
Chasing merit can feel like an endless journey, though. Students must wait until all admission and merit offers are received before they make a final decision about enrollment. Their choice of where they enroll often depends on how much merit money they received. This can take the student through the spring of senior year, or beyond. There are even colleges like Case Western University that will offer admission and a merit scholarship to waitlisted students beyond May 1st, National Decision Day.

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Every time the term chasing merit comes up in my daily life, I think of the lyrics of the haunting, yet powerful song by Adele, "Chasing Pavements":  
Should I give up?Or should I just keep chasing pavements?Even if it leads nowhereOr would it be a waste?Even If I knew my place, should I leave it there?Should I give up?Or should I just keep chasing pavements?Even if it leads nowhere
Chasing merit is like "Chasing Pavements." Sometimes students must forgo where they belong in order to go where the money is.