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.

Advertisements

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 2017 test should be able to get their scores in mid-December 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 2017 will receive two scores, one a total test score ranging from 320 to 1520, 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. The confirming score is not the student’s actual SAT score, however. It is based on a unique calculation of the student’s Math section score plus the Evidence Based Reading/Writing score. (Please see this post for a detailed discussion of PSAT and confirming SAT scores and calculations.)

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.

 

Merit Aid: Publics that Fund at least 50% of Freshmen Tuition and Fees

Thanks to the availability of a 2012 NY Times Table on Merit Money, we have identified the public universities that meet two criteria for providing non-need based merit aid to students: (1) at least 10 percent of freshmen receive the merit aid and (2) the merit aid covers at least 50 percent of the cost of in-state tuition and fees. (It is likely that many of the universities listed below also provide excellent merit aid for highly-qualified out-of-state students.)

The merit aid is not limited to National Merit Scholarships.  For information regarding those scholarships, please see Best Major Universities for National Merit Scholarship Funding and PSAT National Merit Qualifying Scores and SAT Equivalencies, by State.

After identifying the universities that meet the two criteria listed above, we then ranked and scaled them.  Finally, we weighted the results so that the dollar amount of merit aid counts for two-thirds of the total.  We weighted the results in this way because the 10 percent threshold for freshmen receiving aid is already high.

Here are the public universities with the best merit aid for in-state students:

1. Alabama–108% tuition and fees; 27% of freshmen

2. College of Charleston–104% tuition and fees; 23% of freshmen

3. Mississippi–100% tuition and fees; 24% of freshmen

4. Alabama Huntsville–92% tuition and fees; 27% of freshmen

5. SUNY Plattsburgh–91% tuition and fees; 28% of freshmen

6. Truman State–78% tuition and fees; 41 % of freshmen

7. LSU–91% tuition and fees; 25% of freshmen

8. UT Dallas–98% tuition and fees; 12% of freshmen

9. Arizona State–91% tuition and fees; 19% of freshmen

10. Maryland Baltimore Co–87% tuition and fees; 16% of freshmen

11. Idaho–79% tuition and fees; 23% of freshmen

12. Alabama Birmingham–76% tuition and fees; 25% of freshmen

13. Nebraska–75% tuition and fees; 25% of freshmen

14. Indiana–81% tuition and fees; 18% of freshmen

15. Arizona–73% tuition and fees; 23% of freshmen

16. Auburn–71% tuition and fees; 24% of freshmen

17. UT Permian Basin-65% tuition and fees; 28% of freshmen

18. South Carolina–53% tuition and fees; 37% of freshmen

19. New College Fla–51% tuition and fees; 36% of freshmen

20. Southern Miss–72% tuition and fees; 11% of freshmen

21. Mississippi State–56% tuition and fees; 24% of freshmen

22. Ohio State–53% tuition and fees; 24% of freshmen

23. Connecticut–60% tuition and fees; 11% of freshmen

24. Georgia State–55% tuition and fees; 14% of freshmen

25. Colorado State–56% tuition and fees; 12% of freshmen

26. Cincinnati–53% tuition and fees; 15% of freshmen

27. Kansas State–51% tuition and fees; 15% of freshmen

28. Texas A&M–53% tuition and fees; 10% of freshmen

Also notable are the following:

Michigan–46% of tuition and fees; 46% of freshmen

Purdue–75% of tuition and fees; 9% of freshmen

 

 

 

 

PSAT National Merit Scholar Qualifying Scores for 2019, by State

Update September 4, 2018: The qualifying selection index scores for the 2019 class are now listed below.  

Below are the Selection Index semifinalist qualifying scores for the Class of 2019, according to privately reported scores gathered by the Compassprep site. The selection index score is the sum of your three PSAT scores, maximum of 228. The first score listed is for 2019; the second was the score required for the class of 2018; and the third is the score for the class of 2017.

Alabama 216, 216, 215
Alaska 215, 217, 213
Arizona 220, 220, 219
Arkansas 214, 215, 213
California 223, 222, 221
Colorado 221, 220, 218
Connecticut 222, 221, 220
Delaware 222, 221, 218
Dist Columbia 223, 223, 222
Florida 219, 219, 217
Georgia 220, 220, 219
Hawaii 220, 220, 217
Idaho 214, 216, 214
Illinois 221, 221, 219
Indiana 219, 219, 217
Iowa 216, 216, 215
Kansas 218, 219, 217
Kentucky 218, 217, 215
Louisiana 217, 216, 214
Maine 217, 215, 214
Maryland 223, 222, 221
Massachusetts 223, 222, 222
Michigan 219, 219, 216
Minnesota 220, 220, 219
Mississippi 215, 213, 212
Missouri 217, 217, 216
Montana 214, 214, 210
Nebraska 216, 215, 215
Nevada 218, 217, 214
New Hampshire 219, 217, 216
New Jersey 223, 223, 222
New Mexico 215, 215, 213
New York 221, 221, 219
North Carolina 220, 219, 218
North Dakota 212, 211, 209
Ohio 219, 219, 217
Oklahoma 216, 213
Oregon 221, 220, 219
Pennsylvania 220, 220, 218
Rhode Island 220, 216, 217
South Carolina 216, 217, 215
South Dakota 215, 215, 209
Tennessee 219, 218, 218
Texas 221, 221, 220
Utah 215, 216, 215
Vermont 216, 217, 215
Virginia 222, 222, 221
Washington 222, 222, 221
West Virginia 212, 211, 209
Wisconsin 216, 217, 215
Wyoming 212, 213, 209
Commended 212, 211
Territories 212, 211
International 223, 223

To qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, the PSAT must be taken in the student’s junior year of high school.  Many parents may not be aware that there is no single nationwide score on the PSAT that will qualify a student to become a NMS semifinalist, a critical preliminary step on the way to becoming a finalist and then perhaps a merit scholar.

Students are classified according to the state in which they attend high school, not the state of actual residence.

For more information about confirmation scores, please see PSAT Scoring and NMS (for a detailed explanation of scoring); The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One; and The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role.

(See also Best Major Universities for National Merit Scholarship Funding and Merit Aid: Publics that Fund at least 50% of Tuition and Fees.)

Semifinalists emerge from the top 3-4% of students (50,000 or so) taking the test, by virtue of the PSAT score alone.  The top 3-4% of students earn “commended” status, and there is a national uniform score for commended students=209 for 2017.  (See below for SAT equivalent.) Semifinalists, on the other hand, account for fewer than 1% of all students, or about 16,000 nationwide.

From these students, the merit scholar foundation, using state allocation levels, selects about 15,000 to become finalists; and from this group, about 9,000 are actually selected as merit scholars, based on both PSAT and SAT scores and a letter of recommendation from the high school principal.  Therefore, many students who meet the semifinalist thresholds listed below do not go on to become finalists or merit scholars (two different things, though for some schools being a finalist is sufficient to earn support).  We speculate that meaningful improvement on the SAT, taken in the spring of the junior year, relative to the PSAT score from the preceding October, may help in identifying students who go beyond finalist status and become merit scholars.

Each state has its own threshold PSAT score, which is the baseline for students to be considered as semifinalists in a given state.  The scores vary widely for the NMS class of 2019, from 2012 in West Virginia to 223 in New Jersey. Rhode Island had the biggest increase, from 216 to 220.

UT Dallas McDermott Scholars: An Exciting Free Ride for Four Years

Editor’s Note: The following post is from UT Dallas…

The UT Dallas McDermott Scholars Program has selected 21 students to make up the 2013 incoming class.

The entering cohort was chosen from nearly 1,200 high school students in 30 states and five countries who had initially expressed interest in the program. Fifty-eight applicants were invited to the annual selection weekend, from which the final 21 students were chosen.

The incoming class of 2013 will include eight students from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Ten others are from out of state, and one is from Romania. Collectively, this group has an average two-part SAT score of 1520. Eighteen of the 21 have received recognition from the National Merit Scholar program, five were high school valedictorians, and two were Presidential Scholar nominees.

“UT Dallas and the McDermott Scholars Program have again proved their ability to attract some of the nation’s best and brightest students,” said Molly Seeligson, director of the McDermott Program. “I am so pleased that our institution and program will have the opportunity to benefit from the contributions of these remarkable young people while we help them to realize their potential.”

As McDermott Scholars, the students will have educational expenses covered for the next four years and will participate in a wide variety of cultural and educational enrichment experiences in the Dallas area and beyond.

The McDermott Scholars Program is carefully designed to incorporate various aspects of experiential learning:

Freshman year includes an orientation trip to Santa Fe, N.M., weekly leadership development seminars and a trip to Washington, D.C., for an immersion in government operations.

During their sophomore year, scholars take leading roles on campus, and experience state and local government during a trip to the Capitol in Austin.

Junior year is focused on study abroad and/or internships.

Senior year centers on final preparations for the next phase of scholars’ lives and includes traditions such as a class retreat, capstone service projects and the passing of the McDermott Scholars Program torch in the “Lighting the Legacy” ceremony.

The arrival of this year’s class will mark the program’s 13th class. The incoming group will join the 62 scholars already in attendance at UT Dallas. The program has 142 alumni.

The McDermott Scholars Program was made possible by a $32 million gift from Margaret McDermott, wife of the late Eugene McDermott, one of the co-founders of Texas Instruments (TI). McDermott and two TI co-founders, Cecil Green and Erik Jonsson, founded the research institution that in 1969 became UT Dallas.

For more information on the McDermott Scholars Program or the application process, visit the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program website.

Best Major Universities for National Merit Scholarship Funding

Editor’s note: This list is now updated effective June 28, 2017, to include data for 2016 compared to 2015.  This is the most recent data available.

Below we list enrolled merit scholars, by university, for both years so that readers can gauge any trends in university support for the scholarships. Please know that “sponsorship” by a university of one or more National Merit Scholarships often means that the actual funding is $2,000 or less, although there remain a few universities that tie very generous awards to National Merit Finalist status.

For more specific information about more than 100 generous merit scholarships, please see this separate post Best Major Universities for National Merit Scholarship Sponsorship–Part Two.  As you will see in that post, many generous merit awards are not linked directly to National Merit status.

Nowadays, winners of merit scholarships whose families fall into that broad range of being moderately well off but not comfortably well to do need to know which universities still place a premium on National Merit Scholars. The universities that continue to recruit NM scholars typically do so because (1) they want to compete with the Ivies for the best students and/or (2) they want to raise the profile of their undergrads so that national rankings will show a higher degree of selectivity.

Most of the highly-ranked private universities that continue their relationship with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation fall into category (1) above. Foremost among these in 2016 are the University of Chicago with 277 merit scholars (185 of them with university sponsorship); USC with 230 merit scholars (189 with USC support);Vanderbilt with 220 scholars (166 with university support); and Northwestern with 168 scholars (125 with school support).

It is noteworthy that some of the above private elites have reduced the total number of NMS scholars enrolled and the number of scholars receiving university sponsorship. Indeed, Washington University in St. Louis had 212 merit scholars enrolled in 2014, 159 with university sponsorship. In 2016, this number fell to 33 scholars enrolled, none with university sponsorship.

This is also a trend for most, but not all, public universities listed below. Of the 23 public universities listed, only 8 have increased their sponsorship of national merit scholars year over year. One can sense a university’s receptiveness and willingness to buck the trend against awarding merit scholarships by view the year over year list below.

A longer list of public universities appears below.

The excellent private universities still awarding merit aid are willing to take the heat for sponsoring non- need-based students based on merit alone at a time when the inequities of scholarship funding have led to a greater emphasis on allocating funds mostly or entirely on a need-based scale.

Again, for many families, that trend is a good one; but for families with incomes in the mid six figures, for example, the ability to qualify for need-based aid may be negligible while the pinch on the family budget is still significant.

Many public elites have joined the Ivies in not providing their own funds to match or pay entirely for merit scholarships.  Among these schools are all the UC campuses, Virginia, Michigan, UT Austin, Washington, and more recently North Carolina, Ohio State, Illinois, and Georgia Tech.  At these universities, merit scholars may still receive non-need-based assistance, but it will not be in the form of university-sponsored merit funds.  These and other universities may also have some scholarships for valedictorians and other highly qualified scholars.

Of these leading public universities that do not sponsor merit scholars, UC Berkeley had the most enrolled merit scholars, 161, followed by UT Austin with 74. Among private universities, Harvard enrolled 233 merit scholars, Stanford 179, MIT 154, Yale 147, and Princeton 117.

The University of Wisconsin only sponsored 5 merit scholars in 2016, out of 17 enrolled at the university.

The University of Oklahoma returned in 2016 to the number 1 position in enrollment of national merit scholars among all universities public or private (279) and the number receiving university sponsorship (236).

Below is a list of public universities that still match or fund National Merit Scholars, regardless of need, and that had 25 or more university-sponsored merit scholars in 2016. We will list the university, followed by the total number of merit scholars in the 2015 report, followed again by the number of those scholars that also received school support based on the merit scholarship. Then we do the same for merit scholars in the same universities in 2016.

As a general rule, the higher the number of school-supported merit scholars, the greater the recruitment is for merit scholars. Colleges with a year over year increase in sponsored scholarships are in bold. All colleges are listed in order of their total merit scholar enrollment in 2016. A total of 16 of the 23 universities are in the South or Southwest.

Oklahoma (2015): 288 total, 240 with university sponsorship, (2016): 279 total, 236 with university sponsorship (still most in the nation).

Alabama (2015): 148 total, 120 with university sponsorship; (2016): 155 total, 135 with university sponsorship.

Florida (2015): 146 total, 113 with university sponsorship; (2016): 158 total, 119 with university sponsorship.

Minnesota (2015): 147 total, 115 with university sponsorship; (2016): 150 total, 113 with university sponsorship.

Purdue (2015): 94 total, 68 with university sponsorship; (2016): 125 total, 98 with university sponsorship.

Texas A&M (2015): 142 total, and 120 with university sponsorship; (2016): 122 total, 90 with university sponsorship.

UT Dallas (2015): 101 total, 78 with university sponsorship; (2016): 119 total, 94 with university sponsorship.

Arizona State (2015): 112 total, 94 with university sponsorship; (2016): 109 total, and 89 with university sponsorship.

Kentucky (2015): 111 total, 93 with university sponsorship; (2016): 99 total, 88 with university sponsorship.

Univ of Central Florida (2015): 69 total, 59 with university sponsorship; (2016): 77 total, 68 with university sponsorship.

Auburn (2015): 64 total, 51 with university sponsorship; (2016): 60 total, 52 with university sponsorship.

Maryland (2015): 61 total, 48 with university sponsorship; (2016): 52 total, 42 with university sponsorship.

Indiana (2015): 68 total, 50 with university sponsorship; (2016): 52 total, 38 with university sponsorship.

Cincinnati (2015): 44 total, 38 with university sponsorship; (2016): 50 total, 36 with university sponsorship.

Arkansas (2015): 37 total, 31 with university sponsorship; 2016: 45 total, 38 with university sponsorship.

Arizona (2015): 65 total, 57 with university sponsorship; (2016): 43 total, 37 with university sponsorship.

Clemson (2015): 55 total, 41 with university sponsorship; (2016): 43 total, 36 with university sponsorship.

Ole Miss (2015): 40 total, 34 with university sponsorship; (2016): 43 total, 30 with university sponsorship.

Georgia (2015): 42 total, 28 with university sponsorship; (2016): 39 total, 31 with university sponsorship.

Mississippi St (2015): 37 total, 33 with university sponsorship; (2016): 37 total, 29 with university sponsorship.

Nebraska (2015): 47 total, 41 with university sponsorship; (2016): 36 total, 31 with university sponsorship.

South Carolina (2015): 46 total, 33 with university sponsorship; (2016): 36 total, 31 with university sponsorship.

Michigan State (2015): 43 total, 36 with university sponsorship; (2016): 34 total, 30 with university sponsorship.

 

 

 

 

Gates-Funded Reform Plan: More Low-Income Aid, Fewer Merit Grants, No Tax Credit

More than five years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to fund projects and research aimed at doubling by the year 2025 the number of low-income students who graduate from college or from some other post-secondary institution.  The Gates-funded proposals that have come forward in recent weeks share this profoundly egalitarian focus and, if implemented, would have a revolutionary impact on higher education.

While the egalitarian goals are laudable, it is also true that if all the recommendations are implemented, middle-class parents and students will for the most part find it more difficult to pay for college.  The message we receive from these initiatives is that the foundation believes that the nation as a whole is at great risk because too many low-income students are falling behind, and that ameliorating this problem is worth some sacrifice on the part of the middle class.

One such initiative is from the Committee for Economic Development, which proposes that current federal non-loan programs (e.g., Pell Grants) be replaced by need-based federal-state matching programs.  This proposal has received some media attention, but after reading the entire 32-page report, we believe its potential impact has been insufficiently understood.

The CED report argues that the current higher education system is inefficient because too little financial aid goes to those who are most in need.  There is an implicit recognition in the report that “broad-access” institutions will be the most affected, while elite public and private institutions will have to make fewer adjustments.

The report is critical of colleges that regard federally-funded grants and loans as the only means of increasing access to low-income students, meanwhile preferring to use state and institutional funds for the purpose of merit-based aid to high-achieving students who will raise college profiles.  Middle- and even upper-class students who now enjoy merit aid may find that the matching requirements recommended by the CED will dramatically reduce the availability of merit funds.

“Our concern,” the CED says, “is that institutions are engaged in a kind of ‘arms race’ for academically qualified students….This drives an ongoing process of increasing financial aid to students who will go to college regardless of the level of aid they receive.”  One reason for this “arms race” is the focus on student selectivity in college rankings, especially the U.S. News annual best college issue.  Bill Gates has directly criticized this emphasis on “inputs” versus “outputs,” such as improving the skills of under-prepared students.

Clearly the rising cost of attending college has hit low-income students the hardest.  The CED recognizes that state cuts to public colleges and higher operating costs are the principal factors driving higher costs, but sees little on the horizon to change the current lack of public support.  Therefore, the only option is to use student aid funds more efficiently.

The aid funds themselves cannot be increased to cover the increasing costs.  The CED notes that two presidents in a row have funded Pell Grants at record levels (now $35 billion), but the proportion of tuition and fees covered by the grants has gone down.

The specific recommendations of the CED report would transform the college financial aid system, especially grants:

  • Grant funds for a state would be determined by the number of low-income young people in the state, not by the number of high school graduates or college students.
  • Individual grant aid would be determined by the IRS based on tax returns.
  • Grants would be portable across state lines.
  • In-state tuition would not increase more than median family income.
  • State and institutional grant funds would have to match federal funds at 20 percent.
  • Merit-based awards could still exist, but only after this 20 percent matching level has been met.
  • States could refuse to participate, but then would lose the 80 percent federal grant contribution.
  • The tax credit for families with college students would be eliminated and the $18 billion in savings would be used for incentive programs (using financial aid to increase graduation rates; tying financial aid work-study to local job market).
  • Aid applications would be simplified.
  • Loans would be repaid based on income.

The report acknowledges that reduced merit aid and the elimination of the college tax credit will hurt middle-income families, but says that some of this harm will be offset by the requirement that colleges could increase tuition and fees only to the extent of any increase in median family income.

The CED says that this requirement will force state legislatures and college administrators to reach “durable” agreements about how much state appropriations may change or about how much tuition and fees might increase.