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.

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.

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 see separate post Best Major Universities for National Merit Scholarship Sponsorship–Part Two for additional information about all types of merit aid.

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.