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The difference between merit and need-based scholarships

Published March 14, 2024| minute read
Hadiya Iqbal

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    Scholarships are one of the most prized forms of college financial aid with good reason – for the most part, you don’t need to pay them back.

    It’s incredibly important to understand the difference between merit and need-based scholarships to ensure that you maximize your scholarship opportunities as you navigate paying for college.

    In this article, we'll dive into the key difference between merit and need-based scholarships, a few need-based and merit-based scholarships worth considering applying for, and some other important things to know about these two types of scholarship opportunities.

    What's a merit scholarship?

    Merit-based scholarships are awarded to students based on academic and extracurricular achievements.

    Some examples of achievements that might make someone eligible for a merit-based scholarship include standardized test scores, high school GPA, sports achievements, and other extracurricular achievements.

    While merit scholarships emphasize achievements, some consider financial need as well.

    Everywhere from nonprofit organizations to private businesses to colleges and universities offer merit-based scholarships.

    It's important to note that while many colleges offer merit-based scholarships, others, including all Ivy League schools, don't. Although Ivy League schools don't offer merit-based scholarships, they're considered to have some of the strongest financial aid programs out there, so don’t let this fact discourage you from applying to this group of schools.

    Examples of merit-based scholarships

    Merit-based scholarships are abundant – you don’t have to have a perfect GPA or be an all-star athlete to qualify for one. Here, we're highlighting just five, but remember it's so important to search high and low for scholarships that you might be eligible for – there are just so many out there.

    Buick Achievers Scholarship:

    This scholarship, which is up to $25,000, was established by the General Motors Foundation. It's designed for students who want to study engineering, technology, and other related subjects. The scholarship looks for academic excellence and leadership potential from its candidates.

    Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation:

    This scholarship offered by Coca-Cola provides scholarships to students based on their academic records, volunteer work, and leadership skills. Applicants must be planning on attending an accredited U.S. college. 150 winners are named each year, each receiving $20,000. A group of finalists gets a $1,000 scholarship.

    Foot Locker Scholarship:

    This scholarship from Foot Locker is designed for athletes with high GPAs. Recipients receive $20,000 spread over four years.

    National Merit Scholarship Program:

    One of the most famous merit scholarships, The National Merit Scholarship is based on PSAT/NMSQT scores. Ultimately 16,000 students with the highest scores in all 50 states are named semifinalists. From there, students must meet certain academic requirements to advance to the next level.

    The Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship:

    This is a set of scholarships for women studying computing at the undergraduate and graduate level administered by Google. Scholarships are awarded based on essays and interviews and the award is up to $10,000.

    What's a need-based scholarship?

    Need-based scholarships emphasize a student’s family’s income as a requirement for qualifying. This contrasts with merit-based scholarships that emphasize achievement.

    While financial need is a key qualifier for these scholarships, many also consider additional factors including academic, artistic, or athletic achievements when awarding scholarships to students.

    Examples of need-based scholarships

    There is an abundance of need-based scholarships out there and we highly suggest doing an exhaustive search to identify opportunities you might be eligible for. Here are just a few of the options available:

    A Helping Hand Scholarship:

    This scholarship is available to low-income graduating high school seniors who plan on enrolling in community college, a career training program, or a four-year college. It's also open to current college students with demonstrated financial need.

    $40,000 Big Future Scholarship:

    This scholarship is open to US-based high school students. It doesn’t have an essay requirement, minimum GPA, test score, or citizenship requirements.

    Gates Millennium Scholars Program:

    Started by Bill and Melinda Gates, this scholarship is for minority students with significant financial needs interested in computer science, engineering, and mathematics. The actual award amount varies based on need.

    Questbridge National College Match Scholarship:

    This scholarship is for high school seniors who have demonstrated financial need. It provides full funding for school, including tuition, and room and board for four years.

    Hagan Scholarship:

    This scholarship is for high-achieving high school seniors who live in rural areas of the U.S. and have demonstrated financial need. The scholarship provides up to $48,000 in funds to pay for college.

    Understanding the differences between merit and need-based scholarships

    The big difference, as we covered earlier, between merit and need-based scholarships is that merit scholarships are predominantly based on achievements. Need-based scholarships use a student’s family’s income as a qualifier for the scholarship – though these scholarships might also consider a student’s achievements like their academic record.

    Need-based scholarships often require that students have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which determines a student’s eligibility based on their financial situation. Some merit scholarships require that students have completed the FAFSA® while others do not.

    Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about merit and need-based scholarships is that many students are eligible for both. There's no limit to the number of scholarships that you can apply for, and no limit to the number of scholarships that you can receive (though most put restrictions on what the funds can be used to pay for).

    Need-based and merit-based scholarships for international students

    For the most part, international students are not eligible for federal student aid from the U.S. Department of Education.

    There are however need-based and merit-based scholarships available to international students. Many colleges and universities have scholarship programs that are open to international students, for instance.

    According to the Fulbright Commission, more than 600 American universities offer scholarships worth $20,000 or more to international students. Some examples include NYU Wagner, which offers scholarships to admitted students, including international students. The Robertson Scholars Program offered at Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is available to students with demonstrated leadership capabilities, including international students.

    The Fulbright Foreign Student Program enables graduate students, young professionals, and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the U.S. Approximately 4,000 students receive the Fulbright each year.

    Final thoughts

    While merit and need-based scholarships are different, it’s important to remember that many students are eligible for both. That's why it's so important to complete the FAFSA® each year to determine eligibility for financial aid, including many scholarships.