Money Magazine Best Values 2017: CUNY Baruch, Michigan, UC’s, UVA Lead Publics

The new rankings from Money are out, and public colleges and universities account for 27 of the top 50 best values in 2017. These rankings are likely the best college rankings overall, given their balanced approach.

As Jeffrey J. Selingo writes in the Washington Post, the earnings portion of the rankings are based in part on some very interesting new evidence: the “Chelly data.”

“That refers to Raj Chetty,” Selingo tells us, “a Stanford professor, who has led a team of economists that has received access to millions of anonymous tax records that span generations. The group has published several headline-grabbing studies recently based on the data. In findings published in January, the group tracked students from nearly every college in the country and measured their earnings more than a decade after they left campus, whether they graduated or not.

Money does a better job of ranking colleges based on “outcomes” than Forbes does (see Outcomes farther down). This is especially the case with the multiple earnings analyses.

To see the list of top publics, please skip the methodology discussion immediately below.


The 2017 rankings include 27 factors in three categories:

Quality of education (1/3 weighting), which was calculated using:

Six-year graduation rate (30%).

Value-added graduation rate (30%). “This is the difference between a school’s actual graduation rate and its expected rate, based on the economic and academic profile of the student body (measured by the percentage of attendees receiving Pell grants, which are given to low-income students, and the average standardized test scores of incoming freshmen).” [Emphasis added.]

“Peer quality (10%). This is measured by the standardized test scores of entering freshman (5%), and the percentage of accepted students who enroll in that college, known as the “yield” rate (5%).” Note: using the yield rate is an improvement over the U.S. News rankings.

“Instructor quality (10%). This measured by the student-to-faculty ratio.” Note: this is very similar to a U.S. News metric.

“Financial troubles (20%). This is a new factor added in 2017, as financial difficulties can affect the quality of education, and a growing number of schools are facing funding challenges.” Note: although this is not an “outcome” either, it is more meaningful than using data on alumni contributions, etc.

Affordability (1/3 weighting), which was calculated using:

“Net price of a degree (30%). This is the estimated amount a typical freshman starting in 2017 will pay to earn a degree, taking into account the college’s sticker price; how much the school awards in grants and scholarships; and the average time it takes students to graduate from the school, all as reported to the U.S. Department of Education….This takes into account both the estimated average student debt upon graduation (15%) and average amount borrowed through the parent federal PLUS loan programs (5%).

“Student loan repayment and default risk (15%).

“Value-added student loan repayment measures (15%). These are the school’s performance on the student loan repayment and default measures after adjusting for the economic and academic profile of the student body.

Affordability for low-income students (20%). This is based on federally collected data on the net price that students from families earning $0 to $30,000 pay.

Outcomes (1/3 weighting), which was calculated using:

“Graduates’ earnings (12.5%), as reported by alumni to; early career earnings within five years of graduation (7.5%), and mid-career earnings, which are for those whose education stopped at a Bachelor’s degree and graduated, typically, about 15 years ago. (5%).

“Earnings adjusted by majors (15%). To see whether students at a particular school earn more or less than would be expected given the subjects students choose to study, we adjusted’s data for the mix of majors at each school; for early career earnings (10%) and mid-career earnings (5%).

“College Scorecard 10-year earnings (10%). The earnings of federal financial aid recipients at each college as reported to the IRS 10 years after the student started at the college.

“Estimated market value of alumni’s average job skills (10%). Based on a Brookings Institution methodology, we matched up data provided by LinkedIn of the top 25 skills reported by each school’s alumni with Burning Glass Technologies data on the market value each listed skill.

“Value-added earnings (12.5%). To see if a school is helping launch students to better-paying jobs than competitors that take in students with similar academic and economic backgrounds, we adjusted’s earnings data for the student body’s average test scores and the percentage of low-income students at each school; for early career earnings (7.5%) and mid-career earnings (5%).

Job meaning (5%). We used the average score of each school’s alumni on’s survey question of “Does your work make the world a better place?”

“Socio-economic mobility index (20%).

For the first time, we included new data provided by the Equality of Opportunity Project that reveals the percentage of students each school move from low-income backgrounds to upper-middle class jobs by the time the student is 34 years old.Finally, we used statistical techniques to turn all the data points into a single score and ranked the schools based on those scores.” [Emphasis added.]

The inclusion of these metrics makes the Money rankings a hybrid of the Washington Monthly “public good” rankings, U.S. News, and Kiplinger rankings, with the socio-economic factors having a less significant impact than the Washington Monthly rankings on overall standing. Still, these factors do result in two CUNY campuses’ receiving high rankings.

“The data showed, for example,” Selingo writes, “that the City University of New York propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined. The California State University system advanced three times as many.”


CUNY Baruch College–2
UC Berkeley–4
UC Irvine–7
UC Davis–9
Georgia Tech–16
Virginia Tech–23
College of New Jersey–24
UC Riverside–29
Michigan State–30
UT Austin–31
Texas A&M–34
UC Santa Barbara–36
Purdue–37 (tie)
Cal State Long Beach–42
CUNY Brooklyn–43
UW Madison–45
James Madison–46
Rutgers, New Brunswick–49
NC State–50


Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: ASU Barrett Honors College

Almost certainly the best-known honors college (or program) in the nation, the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State is also among the most effective at achieving “honors completion,” which means that a very high percentage of its students not only graduate but also finish all of their honors requirements, including a thesis, before doing so.

Unfortunately, it has been the case with many honors programs that not even a majority of first-year enrollees complete all honors requirements. (Even so, honors students who leave their programs still graduate from their universities at a very high rate.)

The other strengths of Barrett are a fully committed Dean who has a genuine passion for public honors education, plus some of the best honors residence halls in the nation. Notably, the residence halls can also accommodate virtually every first- and second-year honors student, rare for any honors program. The Dean also has a very large staff of more than 60 along with additional support from more than 40 faculty members, a good thing considering that Barrett, with almost 7,000 students, is probably the second largest honors college in the nation. (We estimate that the University of Alabama Honors College is probably the largest.)

This is an extremely important but sometimes overlooked factor in selecting an honors college. The Barrett support is evident in the very high number of its students who win prestigious national awards, especially Fulbright Student Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships for undergrads in STEM disciplines, Udall Scholarships, and Truman Scholarships.

Almost 60 percent of Barrett graduates go to top graduate or professional schools, while 30 percent choose immediate employment; the remainder choose travel or volunteer work.

Many of the honors credit classes at ASU are large, but the honors-only classes offered by the honors college average 15.9 students. Barrett also makes very extensive use of honors “contracts” that allow honors credit for additional work in regular class sections, some of which are very large.

National Scholar Merit Aid

Sorting out the merit aid options at Barrett is a bit difficult, but at the outset we estimate that more than 80 percent of Barrett students who have no demonstrated need receive an average of more than $8,000 in merit aid. With an average ACT of 29, new SAT of 1340-1350,  and a core HSGPA of 3.79, Barrett students receive generous support. All told, some 95 percent of Barrett students receive merit aid, and more than 40% receive need-based aid on top of their merit aid.

But…the term “full ride” is not used by ASU or Barrett in describing the aid. In a very few cases, the combination of university aid, Barrett aid, and need-based aid may come close, but such is not the norm even for national scholars.

The Dean told us last year that “The university also has uncapped national scholar awards that are the same amount for National Merit, Hispanic and Achievement Scholars. These are full out of state tuition for all OOS national scholars, even if it increases as they are at ASU, and $16,000 per year for in-state national scholars. Both in-state and out-of-state national scholars also receive $1,500 towards research costs for research they do, and $1,000 for any honors travel they carry out while at ASU.” (Note: these “extras” more than offset the Barrett charge to each student of $750 per semester.)

So what the school lacks in providing full rides it makes up for in funding “uncapped” merit aid for national scholars that is still quite generous. If you qualify, you should get it= uncapped, or no limits on number of awards.

The university has a link to a calculator that allows prospective award recipients to enter test scores, GPA, class standing, in-state or OOS residency, and national merit scholar status to determine the amount of aid and the resulting net cost of attending. Our “tests” of the calculator yielded aid totals somewhat less than reported above but approximate. It appears that much higher test scores might not affect award amounts nearly as much as NMS status.

The proof is in the pudding: More than 750 national scholars are now enrolled in Barrett. In a recent year, 117 National Merit Finalists and 105 National Hispanic Scholars enrolled as first-year students.

Of particular interest is that “National Merit Semi-Finalists who are admitted to ASU with an official SAT or ACT score on file with the university will receive a placeholder New American University Scholar award (such as a President’s, Provost’s, or Dean’s scholarship).” This placeholder award will be upgraded to the New American University Scholarship when

– The student has moved from National Merit Semi-Finalist status to National Merit Finalist status with the NMSC.

– The student lists Arizona State University as his or her first choice school with the NMSC by the NMSC’s posted deadline.

– The student has been admitted to Arizona State University.

The aforementioned President, Provost, and Dean’s Scholarships vary according to OOS status and test scores.

Other Merit Aid

For this category, variations in test scores, GPA, and class rank definitely make a difference. We found no evidence that these awards are uncapped, so even though the value of scholarships might not change much depending on your stats, the prospects of your receiving the award at all probably do depend on higher test scores, etc.

First, consider an OOS applicant with stats higher than the Barrett mean: ACT 32, GPA 3.9, top 5%). The calculator yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $14,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $26,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Using the same stats for an in-state student yields a President’s Scholarship valued at $10,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $14, 340.

Entering mean scores and GPAs for Barrett students (ACT 29, 3.79, top 12%) yields an OOS award of a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $13,000, with a net remaining cost of $27,170, about the same as the total cost for an in-state student. Entering the same scores for an in-state student yields a Provost’s Scholarship valued at $8,000, leaving a net remaining cost of $16,340.

Entering an ACT of 24, GPA of 3.50, class standing top 25% yields an in-state Dean’s Scholarship valued at $6,000. The same scores for OOS yield a Dean’s Scholarship of $12,500, and a remaining net cost of $27,670.

For purposes of comparison, we estimate that in-state National Merit Scholars who receive no non-merit aid or additional merit aid, end up with a net in-state cost of about $12,000. OOS National Merit Scholars with no aid outside the NMS award have a net remaining cost of about $14,400 a year. The OOS NMS award leaves a net cost roughly equivalent to that of the President’s Scholarship for in-state students.

Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: Alabama Honors College

Editor’s Note:  This is the second post in a new, lengthy series that will highlight ten or more public university honors colleges and programs that are (1) excellent academically and (2) offer substantial merit aid either through the honors program or the university as a whole.

For many readers it will come as no surprise to learn the the University of Alabama and its honors college offers some of the most generous merit aid packages in the country to high-achieving students. Yet our recent visit to UA sites revealed an even larger range of excellent scholarships than we had thought were available.

Before a listing of those awards (see below for national merit, in-state, and OOS), please know that the Honors College, despite being the largest in the nation (possibly as many as 7,000 students), nevertheless earned a 4.5 (out of a possible 5.0) rating in our latest book, Inside Honors. 

The major academic strengths of the college are a very large selection of honors classes, including honors sections in most academic disciplines; and an average honors class size of 26.6 students, even counting honors classes in the various departments. Honors students also do most of their honors work in honors-only classes, i.e., in classes that have few or no non-honors students.

Excellent honors residence halls are another strength of the college. The honors residence community includes Blount and Paty Halls, but almost 60% of honors students living on campus reside in Ridgecrest North and South, while another 28% live in Ridgecrest East and West.

“These buildings feature 4-bedroom suites with private bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living/dining area, and a kitchenette. The kitchenette has a full-size refrigerator, microwave, and cabinet space. The bedrooms feature height-adjustable beds with extended twin mattresses.”

Honors students are increasingly successful in winning prestigious Goldwater Scholarships, including the maximum of four allowed to a single college, in 2017. The award goes to outstanding sophomores and juniors who are working in the STEM disciplines. UA students have also won 15 Rhodes Scholarships and 16 Truman Scholarships.


National Merit Finalists can receive the value of tuition for up to five years or 10 semesters for degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate (or law) studies. In addition,

–One year of on-campus housing at regular room rate (based on assignment by Housing and Residential Communities.

A $3,500 per year Merit Scholarship stipend for four years. A student must maintain at least a 3.3 GPA to continue receiving this scholarship stipend. If a corporate-sponsored scholarship from the National Merit Corporation is received, the total value cannot exceed $3,500. (For example, if you receive a corporate-sponsored scholarship of $2,000 per year, UA will contribute $1,500 per year to reach the total stipend amount of $3,500. There is a one-time allowance of $2,000 for use in summer research or international study (after completing one year of study at UA).

Technology Enrichment Allowance $1,000.

National Merit Semifinalists are also eligible for extremely generous aid as Presidential Scholars, amounting to full tuition for four years. The award requires a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA. Recipients “will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.”


To be considered for the Academic Elite Scholarships, a student must be accepted as a member of the University Fellows Experience (UFE). The student must maintain membership in the UFE to continue holding an Academic Elite Scholarship. Complete information on the UFE can be found on the University Fellows website.

There are a total of 8 academic elite scholars named each year. The pool of eligible applicants typically exceeds 1,000 students. These scholarships are awarded for 4 years. Seven Academic Elite Scholarship recipients will receive: Tuition plus one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend per year, and a $1,000 one time technology stipend

The top Academic Elite Scholarship recipient will receive: Tuition, one year of on-campus housing at regular room rate, $8,500 stipend for the first year, $18,500 stipend for years 2-4, $5,000 study abroad stipend (to be used after at least one academic year is completed), a $1,000 one time technology stipend.

Eligibility for the University Fellows Experience requires an ACT score of 32 or a SAT score of 1450 (evidence-based reading and writing plus math) and a high school GPA of 3.8 who is accepted into UA will be eligible to complete the University Fellows Experience application. Applicants must first complete the Honors College application, and then must complete the UFE application. The general UFE application deadline is December 15.



First time freshmen who meet the December 15 scholarship deadline, have a qualifying score on the ACT or SAT and have at least a 3.5 cumulative high school GPA through the junior year will be eligible for the following merit-based scholarships:

Crimson Achievement Scholar: A student with a 25 ACT or 1200-1230 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Crimson Achievement Scholar and will receive $8,000 over four years ($2,000 per year).

UA Legends: A student with a 26 ACT or 1240-1270 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a UA Legends Scholar and will receive $10,000 over four years ($2,500 per year).

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $16,000 over four years ($4,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28-29 ACT or 1310-1380 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 a student will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 30-31 ACT or 1390-1440 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $32,000 over four years ($8,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 32-36 ACT or 1450-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive the value of tuition, or $41,800 over four years ($10,470 per year). Students graduating with remaining tuition scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.



Note: These are the same requirements as those above for in-state students, but the dollar amounts are larger. Please note especially the extremely high value of the Presidential Scholarship for OOS students.

Capstone Scholar: A student with a 27 ACT or 1280-1300 SAT score and a minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA will be selected as a Capstone Scholar and will receive $20,000 over four years ($5,000 per year).

Collegiate Scholar: A student with a 28 ACT or 1310-1340 SAT score and a minimum GPA of 3.5 will be named a Collegiate Scholar and will receive $24,000 over four years ($6,000 per year).

Foundation in Excellence Scholar: A student with a 29 ACT or 1350-1380 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be named a Foundation in Excellence Scholar and will receive $52,000 over four years ($13,000 per year).

UA Scholar: A student with a 30-32 ACT or 1390-1480 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA, he or she will be named a UA Scholar and will receive $76,000 over four years ($19,000 per year).

Presidential Scholar: A student with a 33-36 ACT or 1490-1600 SAT score and at least a 3.5 GPA will be selected as a Presidential Scholar and will receive $100,000 over four years ($25,000 per year). Students graduating with remaining scholarship semester(s) may use these monies toward graduate school and/or law school study at UA.

Honors Programs Plus Strong Merit Aid: Ohio State Honors

Editor’s Note:  This is the first post in a new, lengthy series that will highlight ten or more public university honors colleges and programs that are (1) excellent academically and (2) offer substantial merit aid either through the honors program or the university as a whole.

We begin the series with The Ohio State Honors And Scholars Program because it meets the criteria above and because we have been unable to review it in our two previous books. The program is coordinated by an honors team but delegates much of the course programming to major departments. The result is great for honors students but extremely difficult for us to measure for rating purposes.

The decentralized approach allows for the program to work with more than 5,000 students, making the program one of the largest in the nation.

Before a discussion of highly competitive merit awards for OSU students, it should be said that the University Honors Program is extremely selective despite its large enrollment. Our estimate of the average new SAT score for current students is 1470-1490, with an average ACT of 32-33. This equates to roughly the top 10% of OSU students.

While the university-wide six-year graduation rate is about 83%, the honors grad rate is about 91-92%. University Honors students can choose from 250-300 courses each term. More than a thousand first-year students enroll each fall. About 60% of first-year students (more than a thousand) choose among three main honors residence halls. Each residence has its own honor-related programming. Two of the residences are air-conditioned. The remainder of first-year honors students reside in other university residence halls, many of which have living/learning themes.

Merit Scholarships

The Honors Program coordinates the Eminence Fellowship, the most lucrative and prestigious award at the university. Eminence Fellows receive a “full ride” to OSU. In 2917, there were 17 fellows, all members of the honors program.

Given the high selectivity of the honors program, it is no surprise to find that fellows typically rank in the top three percent of their graduating classes and have an ACT composite score of 34 or higher or SAT combined Critical Reading and Math score of 1520 or higher.

Yet even impressive stats do not guarantee a fellowship. “Eminence Fellows demonstrate academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, high regard for humanity, and significant involvement both on and off campus.” Measuring factors such as a “high regard for humanity” is difficult, and so is the winnowing of fellowship applicants: more than 1,200 apply and only 17 fellowships were awarded in 2017.

On the other hand, the university awards about 300 Morrill Scholarships each year. The scholarships require both strong academic qualifications and characteristics that contribute to the diversity of the university.

Here, diversity means more than a racial or ethnic profile. The “targeted” students include not only ethnic and racial minorities but also first-generation, low-income, and Ohio Appalachian students. In addition, the awards may go to students whose gender is not typical of the major (e.g., women in engineering), or whose major is atypical but desirable (e.g., agriculture). Notably, Agriculture is one of the disciplines that offer many honors courses via the University Honors Program.

It is important to understand the three levels of Morrill awards:

Distinction equals the value of the cost of attendance for both Ohio residents and nonresidents, or a “full ride.” Only about 25 of the 300 Morrill awards are at the Distinction level. One hundred students are invited to interview for the 25 awards. Recipients likely need ACT 33 or new SAT ~1500 along with an extremely high class rank and achievements.

Prominence equals free tuition for out-of-state students.

Excellence: Equals the value of in-state tuition for Ohio residents.

The minimum stats for Prominence or Excellence awards are about 28 ACT or new SAT ~1320.

It is also possible to receive a Maximus Scholarship based mostly on stats and then be considered, usually later, for a Morrill or even Eminence award. The Maximus minimum stats requirement is high (top 3%, 32 ACT or 1450 new SAT) but not related to diversity goals as far as we can tell. The award approximates half the cost of in-state tuition, or about $5,000.

Finally, Provost and Trustees awards are $2,500 and $1,500 a year, respectively. The Provost minimum requirement is top 10%, 30 ACT, or new SAT of 1390. The minimum requirement for Trustees is top 20%, 29 ACT, or new SAT 1350 or higher.




U.S. News Publication: Honors Programs Are Good for “Families Too Rich for Financial Aid”

Public university honors colleges and programs continue to raise their profiles as “value” choices  in higher education, as evidenced by columns in the New York Timesattention from college consultants, and a separate focus piece in the 2015 U.S. News Best Colleges publication.

Now comes another U.S. News publication, the Path to College Guidebook, available for $.99 to Compass subscribers. Compass subscriptions are currently $29.95. (Note: we have no affiliation with U.S. News.)

One section by Farran Powell, titled “Strategies for Students Too Rich for Financial Aid, Too Poor for College,” is especially interesting. Powell describes the experience of a mother in Illinois whose daughter was accepted by Boston College, where the yearly price tag was extremely high.

“Our daughter got into Boston College at $68,000 a year,” says the mom, citing the total cost of attending without any need-based aid and paying in cash.

But she and her daughter chose UConn’s honors program because they gave her daughter a $15,000 a year scholarship, leaving about $30,000 a year in total yearly costs, much less than regular out-of-state expenses would have been.

“(The University of Connecticut charged out-of-state students $34,908 in tuition and fees along with $12,174 for room and board for the 2015-2016 school year – which is much lower compared with Boston College, which billed students $49,324 for tuition and fees and $13,496 for room and board for that same year, according to U.S. News data.”

“Households similar to [this] family from suburban Chicago are turning to honors programs and schools that hand out non-need-based aid…especially if they are ‘too rich for financial aid’,” Powell writes.

Powell quotes a Houston wealth adviser, who told her that for “our folks…those with income $150,000 or higher or $200,000 plus…it also depends on how many kids you have and other factors.”

“Many parents realize there’s a shortfall in funds available as the cost of college continues to climb,” Powell writes.

“‘Thirty years ago, putting your kid through school was like buying a car. Now it’s like buying a house,'” the adviser told Powell.

Powell writes that “Many National Universities, institutions that offer a full range of undergraduate majors as well as master’s and doctoral programs, offer these types of programs along with merit aid to attract high-achieving students to their campuses, college experts say.

The same wealth adviser says “his clients are turning down top-tier schools such as Rice University and Southern Methodist University for in-state honors programs at the University of Texas—Austin or Texas A&M University—College Station because it’s better value for the money.”

“People are making their own way in the world,” the suburban mom told Powell, “and I don’t think you need to spend $70,000 a year on college to get ahead.”

Update No. 2: It’s Complicated–the 2016 Edition of Honors Ratings and Reviews

By John Willingham, Editor

Honors colleges and programs are complex. If you think about it, how could they not be? Take a (generally) large public research university with many thousands of students, sprawling campuses, hundreds of professors, and the huge football stadium somewhere close at hand–and then create an honors program, or even a college within a college, a hybrid for high achievers who might have gone elsewhere.

Any book that attempts to rate or review honors programs can skim the surface and use only a handful of criteria that are relatively simple to assess, or the book can go inside honors in order to explain the more subtle differences. My first book on honors programs was, in retrospect, simplistic. The second was much more in-depth, but did not capture or explain precisely the many types and actual sizes of honors classes, especially sections that are “mixed” or “contract” sections. (A mixed section has honors students as well as non-honors students, the latter often majors in the discipline; in a typical honors contract section,  only one or two honors students receive credit for doing work in a regular section.)

The third book will be the best, and I hope will do justice to the complexity of honors education. But beware: the new book will somewhat complicated itself.
(And getting it out is complicated, too. I am hoping for mid-September. There will be 50 in-depth rated reviews, plus either 5 or 10 summary reviews, time permitting.)

A big reason involves a prospective student who has received an acceptance letter from the prestigious first-choice private college or public elite–but the need-based aid falls short. The “safe” public university, typically in-state or nearby, now receive more serious attention. It is at this point that the honors program or college can incline a student one way or the other.

It is obvious that prestige often plays a large role when it comes to first and second choices of a college. Now with the need-based aid falling short, the cost of prestige has become a problem for the prospective student. If the safe school does not have the same prestige, then what exactly does it have that would is most important to the student, prestige now set aside? Here is the time that parents and students look at the nuts and bolts.

Of course cost is still a huge factor. I will have a much-improved section on merit scholarships at each honors program.

How about small classes, the types of classes, the range of honors classes across disciplines? The data I have this time around is far better than I was able to receive for previous editions; the ratings will be much more precise for class size, type, and range.

But this is the main reason the new book will be somewhat complicated itself. In order to define these types of classes, there are additional categories: Number of Honors Sections; Honors Sections in Key Disciplines (15); Level of Enrollment–the extent to which honors students remain active in the programs; Honors-only class sizes, and the percentage of these actually taken; mixed class sizes, with the same information about the percentage of students; and contract sections, also with the percentage.

How about honors housing? Many prestigious private colleges have residence facilities that are outstanding. Now I will report not only the amenities for honors housing but also the availability of that housing. The rating will now show the reader the ratio of honors dorm space to the number of first- and second-year students in the program.

Did I say ratio? Yes, and some of the ratings can veer into wonkish territory. So…please be patient with the details, for they are where the decisions are made. The student who loves and thrives in small classes needs that detail, and the additional information about mixed and contract classes. The student who wants honors seminars and dozens of honors classes in his or her discipline, will focus on those details; the student who doesn’t have time for seminars will want the straight-from-the shoulder program. And the students who not only desire high-quality dorms but actually want to know if there is space in those dorms, will focus on that detail.

For many students and families, the merit aid and total cost will be the deciding factors. Notice that I did not say “detail.”

While the idea that an honors program “offers the benefits of the liberal arts experience along with the advantages of a major public research university” is generally true, the ways in which honors programs try to meet this goal vary greatly. The new book will be the best effort yet to light up the ways honors works in public institutions.

The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. If you are already familiar with the PSAT qualifying test itself and the preliminary steps, you can scroll down to where you are in the process. At the end of the article is a discussion of the special terminology used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The next installment will focus on the parent’s role in the process.

Author Jane Mueller Fly is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus.

In October of each year, 1.5 million high school juniors will sit for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. For many, the test is just what the name implies: a preliminary SAT. But for others it is the opening bell for two years of anxiety also known as the National Merit Scholarship competition.

The Competition Begins with the PSAT. The PSAT/NMSQT (let’s just call it the PSAT) is the initial hurdle students must clear on the way to becoming National Merit Scholars. Scores are sent in December to the student’s high school. As you will see, notification through the high school is a continuing National Merit theme. The policy at many schools is to wait until after winter break to distribute the scores. So students and parents wait. Update: Students who took the October 2015 test should be able to get their scores on January 7 from the College Board.

The Top 50,000 Scores Nationwide. In April, high school principals are notified which, if any, of their students are among the top scoring 50,000 juniors nationwide. The principals are asked to confirm that those students are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship competition. These 50,000 students will continue in the competition. The remaining 1.45 million juniors are out.

The score required to rank in the top 50,000 fluctuates year to year. For students in the class of 2016, who took the PSAT as juniors in the fall of 2014, a score of 202 placed them in the top 50,000 scorers. Update: Students who took the PSAT in October 2015 will receive two scores, one a total test score ranging from 320 to 152o, and the other a selection index score from 48 to 228. Please see this recent post for qualifying selection index scores for the NMS Class of 2017.

Students in the top 50,000 scorers are guaranteed to be at least Commended Students, but all students are hoping to progress to National Merit Semi-Finalist. At this point in the competition, students and parents alike should hunker down for the long wait, because Semifinalists will not be notified until September of their senior year.

Semifinalists: The Top Scores by State. The lone criterion for progressing to Semifinalist is the PSAT score. Like the score required for Commended Students, the Semifinalist cutoff fluctuates year to year. But unlike the Commended Student cutoff score (209 for the class of 2017), which is the same for all students nationwide, the score required to progress to Semifinalist depends on the state in which the student attends high school. For example, students in the class of 2017 in North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming progressed to Semifinalist with a score of 209, while New Jersey seniors needed a stellar 222.

Perhaps you noticed that the class of 2017 Semifinalist cutoff score in the four lowest scoring states is the same as the nationwide Commended Student cutoff score. This means that there are no Commended Students in the class of 2017 in those four states, but don’t expect complaints from those students, as they have all progressed to Semifinalist.

Approximately 16,000 students will meet or exceed their state’s cutoff score, and will therefore be named Semifinalists. In early September of their senior year, they will be notified by, you guessed it, their high school principals. At this point, of the top scoring 50,000 students, the 34,000 students who are not named Semifinalists are officially National Merit Commended Students. This is of course a great honor, but a disappointment to many students, particularly to students who scored 221 in New Jersey, knowing that they would be Semifinalists in the other 49 states.

While the score required to progress to semifinalist varies from state to state, it is important to note that the NMSC does not publicize the state cutoff scores. This is a cause of great frustration to students eagerly awaiting a congratulatory call to the principal’s office. The letter sent by NMSC to high school principals in early September names the Semifinalists, and provides important login information Semifinalists need in order to complete the online application for Finalist. The letter advises principals the news may be shared only with the students and their families, not anyone else, including media sources, until a later date

Many principals choose to withhold the information from the anxious students, however, until the date the information may be made public. Other principals reasonably but erroneously believe that students have already received the news at their home addresses. Not true, as every Semifinalist knows. In this age of Internet forums and homeschoolers, however, the state-by-state cutoff scores tend to leak out. Homeschool “principals” who received the Semifinalist letters at their homes, and those seniors whose principals already shared the news, post their qualifying scores, or their heartbreaking just-misses, to online forums. A Texas student excitedly posts that she made Semifinalist with her score of 221, but her best friend did not with a score of 219, and later a homeschool parent posts that her son made the cut with a 220. And so it goes, state by state, until a complete state cutoff list materializes.

At this point in the National Merit Competition, it has been eleven months since the students sat for the PSAT exam in the fall of their junior year. Anxiety builds.

Finalists. The next step for the 16,000 Semifinalists is to submit an application to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. The application is done entirely online, and may be accessed only by using the code included in the letter to the high school principal. Students and parents alike agonize over delays in gaining access to the secret code and hence the application. Once the student finally obtains the login details from the high school principal, the application is quite straightforward. The student is required to write a short essay about, perhaps, a person or experience that influenced him or her. The student must also list extracurricular activities, honors, employment, etc.

One additional requirement is that the student submit a “confirming” SAT score. Traditionally, an SAT score of 1960 is sufficient to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. The confirming score is not the student’s actual SAT score, however. It is based on a unique calculation of the student’s Math subscore plus the Critical Reading subscore plus a Writing Skills score calculated by multiplying the student’s Writing Skills multiple choice score by 10.

Meanwhile, the student’s guidance counselor should be hard at work completing his or her half of the application requiring the principal’s endorsement of the student, a recommendation letter for the student, courses and grades for the first three years of high school, and an evaluation of the student’s course rigor, academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities. The completed applications are due in October.

After the application is submitted, the waiting game begins again. Sometime in February, 1000 students will receive letters at their home addresses advising them that they are not advancing to Finalist. Their high school principal is also notified. Throughout February, checking the mailbox is a stressful ordeal, not only for students whose high school grades leave much to be desired, but also for the 4.0 student who worries that his course load was too light, or wonders if his guidance counselor might have written a not-so-good recommendation. Anxious mailbox stalking continues until good news arrives for the 15,000 students who will become Finalists.

The 1000 who do not advance in the competition are now “Permanent Semifinalists.” Anecdotal evidence from online forums indicates that these 1000 students often had low grades in high school. One D or a couple of Cs, even if those grades were earned freshman year, is enough to knock a student out of the competition. Other students with such grades, however, do progress to Finalist. Perhaps a compelling essay, an unusually rigorous course load, or a convincing recommendation from the guidance counselor, tips the scales.

Naming Your First Choice College. Once the 15,000 Semifinalists have been selected, decisions must be made as to which students will receive official Merit Scholarship awards. Students may log on to the NMSC website and enter the name of their first choice college or may choose “undecided.” By the deadline, however, at the end of May (or earlier for some colleges), students should have named their first choice college. Otherwise, they will not be eligible for a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship award.

National Merit Scholars. Of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 7,600 will become National Merit Scholars. It is perhaps this moniker that is most confusing, as often the term National Merit Scholar is used for all students earning Commended Student, Semifinalist or Finalist status. In fact, National Merit Scholar is a specific designation reserved for only those Finalists who are awarded an official Merit Scholarship award. The great news, however, is that this recognition is in the hands of the student.

Official Merit Scholarship awards derive from three sources. The first source, the NMSC itself, awards $2500 scholarships. The second source is corporations, which award approximately 1000 scholarships, usually to children of employees. Currently there are about 240 corporate sponsors. The third source, and the one that is in the hands of the students, is colleges and universities. Approximately 200 colleges and universities, eager to enroll National Merit Finalists, offer official Merit Scholarship awards to 4000 students each year.

National Competition? What Do You Think? Each year, as the online forums buzz with news of the PSAT cutoff scores needed to progress to Semifinalist in each state, the National Merit naysayers complain about the broad range of qualifying scores. It does not seem fair that a 202 in Wyoming can become a National Merit Scholar, earning a 4-year full ride to college, while a 224 in New Jersey is out of the competition at the Commended Student level. The competition is not, say the naysayers, “national”.

As a parent myself, in a state with a traditionally high PSAT cutoff score, I understand the frustration. The NMSC, however, is a private non-profit corporation, and is free to set rules as it sees fit. It is, after all, giving away money to lots of students, which is much better than not giving away money, right? The competition is “national” in that each state is awarded a number of Semifinalists based on that state’s share of graduating seniors. The more graduating seniors in a state, the more Semifinalists that state will have. When all PSATs are graded, and listed from highest to lowest scores, a line is drawn at the score that will most nearly result in the correct number of Semifinalists from each individual state. Each state is equally represented on a per capita basis.

Many believe a more fair process would provide one nationwide Semifinalist cutoff score, but that would result in a greater number of Semifinalists from the high-scoring states. New Jersey, California and Massachusetts would be brimming with Semifinalists, and ultimately, therefore, National Merit Scholars, while certain other states would have few. And that, in my mind, would not result in a truly “national” competition.

The Parent’s Role in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. While hand-wringing is an excellent place to start, I have some other ideas. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Vocabulary: Still Confused? If you are gearing up for the National Merit Scholarship competition, you might as well learn the lingo.

NMSC. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private non-profit entity that runs the National Merit Scholarship competition.

College Board. Administers the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t confuse College Board with NMSC. They are separate entities.

PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Those in the know just call it the PSAT.

Commended Students. Students who score above the national cutoff score for Commended status, but below the state score needed to advance to Semifinalist.

National Merit Semifinalists. 16,000 students who meet the cutoff scores needed in their states to advance in the competition. In other words, the top scoring students in each state..

Permanent Semifinalists. Approximately 1000 Semifinalists who do not progress to Finalist.

National Merit Finalists. 15,000 students who advance from Semifinalist in their senior year.

National Merit Scholar. Any Finalist who receives an official Merit Scholarship award from the NMSC, a corporate sponsor, or a college sponsor.

Merit Scholarship award. One of the three types of official Merit scholarships awarded as part of the National Merit Scholarship competition. The three types are the National Merit $2500 scholarship awarded from the NMSC, corporate-sponsored awards, and college-sponsored awards. These awards should not be confused with the additional scholarship packages offered to National Merit Finalists by many colleges. When a large package is offered by a college or university, it usually consists of a small official Merit Scholarship award, for example $2500 over 4 years, as well as additional scholarship funds available to Finalists.

How Much Should Public Universities Spend on Merit Aid?

Critics claim that public universities spend far too much on merit aid at a time when the focus should be on providing more need-based assistance, but the uses of merit aid are many, as are the reasons that drive the aid decisions at individual institutions.

The main problem for leading institutions, especially, is how to balance quality, access, state interests (including revenue), and public perception. In general, the most vocal critics of merit aid believe that access should trump all the other factors.

Two recent examples of that criticism come from the New America Foundation: Colleges’ Pursuit of Prestige and Revenue Is Hurting Low-Income Students and The Out of State Student Arms Race, both by analyst Stephen Burd.

First of all, some of the arguments in these and other reports are valid. For one thing, there is no doubt that the U.S. News rankings drive many colleges to spend money on generating better metrics, especially those related to test scores, selectivity, and student/faculty ratios. Some schools have become proficient in gaming the system.

The U.S. News methodology currently gives a combined weight of 9.25% to test scores and selection ratios. The use of the latter should be scrapped, given the increased use of the Common App and marketing geared to ramping up applications just for the sake of lowering acceptance ratios. (As for test scores, there are ways that colleges can game that metric as well.) The methodology also assigns a weight of 22.5% to multiple financial metrics that also pressure colleges to raise and spend more money.

State budget cuts and rising costs for instruction, research, and administration have also led to the need for more revenue. Just how much of the additional revenue is actually necessary for improved instruction is a matter of contention. (See for example Baumol’s Cost Disease and The Bowen Effect.) The combined effects of state disinvestment and the obsession with prestige and rankings have undoubtedly led to the intense focus on increasing revenues.

Yet after granting the critics a fair measure of credit, we come back to the four main factors that affect the allocation of merit aid, discussed below. And here’s a proposed standard for balancing the factors: If merit aid is denied to highly qualified, low-income students who are residents of the state, and goes instead to out-of-state students whose qualifications are about the same or less, then the merit aid is being used excessively for revenue purposes.

Quality–As noted elsewhere on this blog, the elite colleges and universities in this country, almost all of them private, simply do not have enough slots for the top 8-10% of students, based on test scores. Most of the highly talented students who are not accepted by elite private colleges will end up at public universities. Those public universities that allocate funds to support smaller classes and undergraduate research for talented students through honors programs, along with merit aid, are not only spending money to recruit students with higher test scores in order to enhance their prestige; they are also filling a real need by providing more slots for talented students. In addition, many are trying to keep talented students in state rather than seeing them leave, never to return. All too often, critics of public university spending ignore these needs.

Access–The relationship of merit aid to greater access for lower-income students is complex. Rankings and prestige have an impact on merit aid allocations, but that impact is not always what the critics see.

Some elite public universities (UC Berkeley, Michigan) offer higher percentages of merit aid than other public universities that are excellent but not so elite (although the average amounts of merit aid from Berkeley and Michigan are not especially large.) Why? The competition for UC Berkeley and Michigan includes many private elite schools, and sometimes even modest merit aid can be the deciding factor. Private universities such as Chicago, Northwestern, and Rice also offer significant merit aid, and do so to compete with the Ivies, Stanford, etc., who are so much in demand that they don’t have to offer non-need-based aid.

The University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina also compete effectively against private elites, but they have chosen to provide very limited merit aid.

For public universities at the next level, Washington, Illinois, UT Austin, Wisconsin, the competition is often with other publics, and they more than hold their own. Partly as a result of being in high demand regardless of aid, UT Austin has one of the highest enrollments of Pell Grant students and offers little in the way of merit aid.

But when it comes to public universities with lesser reputations than those listed above, the balance between aid for quality or aid for access may tip too far toward quality, sometimes with an eye on improving rankings and revenue. New America singles out the University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina for criticism. How much of this criticism is valid?

State Interests/Revenue–The state of South Carolina now funds only 10 percent of the cost of education at the flagship university. Moreover, the number of college-age students in the state is declining. New America criticizes the University of South Carolina for awarding too much merit aid to out-of-state students, who still end up providing more revenue out of pocket than in-state students, and also help to sustain enrollment levels.

If the university allocated most or almost all of its aid to need-based students within the state, the revenue would drop dramatically and the expense per student would rise. The university would probably be unable to support its excellent honors college; for that matter, the university would eventually be unable to serve as many students period. So even if the state legislature undervalues higher education, the university and many citizens believe it is in the interest of the state to increase the number of college graduates (and their families) over the long haul, and not diminish the university in the process.

Is the percentage of non-resident freshmen (45%) too high, and the merit aid they receive too much? To answer those questions, one would need to know (1) whether many highly qualified (but low-income) in-state students are not receiving aid because the aid is going to out-of-state students with equal or lesser qualifications; and (2) how many of talented out of state students will remain in South Carolina after graduation.  To the extent that highly qualified, low-income, in-state students are losing out, then the out  of state aid should be reduced.

Public Perception–Funding honors programs and offering merit aid to talented students can certainly increase the selectivity profile of a university and eventually enhance rankings and public perception. But we would draw a distinction between the aggressive gaming of the rankings and the more justifiable funding that is related to legitimate state interests. New America suggests that the extremely generous merit aid that the University of Alabama offers to talented out-of-state students is mainly to enhance rankings. But, contrary to what New America claims, the Alabama U.S. News ranking has actually fallen 13 places since 2012.

The University of Mississippi is another flagship that offers generous merit aid. What is also true is that the state of Mississippi has the second lowest percentage of college grads in the nation, and Alabama the 7th lowest. Surely these states should find ways to sustain their flagship institutions, and merit aid, for now, is one of those ways. Who knows but that some day they might join UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, UT Austin, Wisconsin and others that can go forward without so much emphasis on merit aid.

Again, we agree with New America that many universities, including some major public institutions, do use merit aid, at least in part, for purposes of moving up in college rankings and sometimes excessively for revenue purposes. But the total picture is much more complicated, resulting in one of the most difficult issues to emerge from state disinvestment in higher education.

The Academic Reputation Ranking in U.S. News: What It Means for Honors Students

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on August 15, 2017, to include new honors class size averages based on our most recent data.

In a previous post, Based on Academic Reputation Alone, Publics Would Be Higher in U.S. News Rankings, we write that many public universities have a reputation in the academic community that is much higher than their overall ranking by U.S. News.  In this post, we will summarize the reasons that prospective honors students and their parents might consider paying more attention to academic reputation than to other factors in the oft-cited rankings.

(Another related post: Alternative U.S. News Rankings: Lots of Surprises.)

First, these are factors to consider if the state university’s academic reputation is much stronger than its overall ranking:

1.  The overall rankings penalize public universities for their typically larger class sizes, but the average honors class size in the 50 major honors programs we track is 26.3 students, much smaller than the average class size for the universities as a whole.  Most of these honors classes are lower-division, where the preponderance of large classes is often the norm. First-year honors seminars and classes for honors-only students average 19 students per section.  Result:  the relatively poor rating the whole university might receive for class size is offset for honors students.

2.  The overall rankings hit some public universities hard for having relatively low retention and graduation percentages, but freshmen retention rates in honors programs are in the 90% range and higher; meanwhile six-year grad rates for honors entrants average 89%–much higher than the average rates for the universities as a whole.  Result: the lower rates for the universities as a whole are offset for honors students.

3.  All public universities suffer in the overall rankings because U.S. News assigns ranking points for both the wealth of the university as a whole and for the impact that wealth has on professors’ salaries, smaller class sizes, etc.  This is a double whammy in its consideration of inputs and outputs separately; only the outputs should be rated.  Result: the outputs for class size (see above) are offset for honors students, and the wealth of the university as an input should not be considered in the first place.

4.  For highly-qualified students interested in graduate or professional school, academic reputation and the ability to work with outstanding research faculty are big advantages. Honors students have enhanced opportunities to work with outstanding faculty members even in large research universities, many of which are likely to have strong departmental rankings in the student’s subject area.  Result: honors students are not penalized for the research focus of public research universities; instead, they benefit from it.

5.  Many wealthy private elites are generous in funding all, or most, need-based aid, but increasingly offer little or no merit aid.  This means that families might receive all the need-based aid they “deserve” according to a federal or institutional calculation and still face annual college costs of $16,000 to $50,000.  On the other hand, national scholars and other highly-qualified students can still receive significant merit aid at most public universities.  Result: if a public university has an academic reputation equal to that of a wealthy private elite, an honors student could be better off financially and not suffer academically in a public honors program.

But…what if the academic reputation of the public university is lower than that of a private school under consideration?   In this case, the public honors option should offer the following offsets:

1. The net cost advantage of the public university, including merit aid, probably needs to be significant.

2.  It is extremely important to evaluate the specific components of the honors program to determine if it provides a major “value-added” advantage–is it, relatively, better than the university as a whole.  Typically, the answer will be yes.  To determine how much better, look at the academic disciplines covered by the honors program, the actual class sizes, retention and graduation rates, research opportunities, and even honors housing and perks, such as priority registration.

UT Austin Alum Leaves $35 Million to Engineering School for Scholarships

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from Alcalde, the alumni magazine of the University of Texas at Austin.

The late T.W. “Tom” Whaley, Ph.D. ’68, who quietly served his country in the CIA during the Cold War, surprised UT leaders this year with a $35 million bequest to create engineering scholarships at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

In 2014-15, the new endowment’s first year, 34 students from across Texas will receive Whaley Scholarships and pursue studies in all seven engineering departments at the Cockrell School.

“Dr. Whaley’s parents instilled in him the value of an education, and he wanted young Texans to have the same opportunities to learn and contribute to their state and nation,” said Whaley’s attorney and friend David Anderson, the executor of his estate. “I believe he made this extraordinary gift to change these students’ lives.”

The T.W. Whaley, Jr. Friends of Alec Endowed Scholarship is now one of the largest endowments for undergraduate and graduate financial aid at the Cockrell School. The endowment, projected to provide $1.6 million in annual merit scholarships and fellowships, increases the school’s total scholarship and fellowship funding by 25 percent.

Incoming freshman Marshall Tekell is from Whaley’s hometown of Waco. “Receiving the Whaley Scholarship changed my life in a radical way,” said Tekell, who plans to major in chemical engineering. “Not only does it remove an enormous burden from my family, it allows me to envision my education far into the future. Dr. Whaley gave me the freedom to follow his example.”

He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from UT Austin where he studied signal strength of electromagnetic waves, and he was recruited by the CIA after graduation because of his expertise in antenna technology. Later, he returned to Texas to help manage his family’s farm, which he helped expand to 4,000 acres. Whaley’s wealth originated from oil and gas royalties, and it grew as he accumulated and oversaw a portfolio of stocks and bonds.