With the ongoing student loan debt crisis and the rising costs of tuition, many students find themselves wondering: Can I even afford to attend college?

While considering the cost of attendance can be overwhelming, many universities provide opportunities to help finance your higher education by providing need-based and/or merit-based financial aid. 

So, what’s the difference?

Need-based financial aid is awarded based on your family’s financial situation and demonstrated financial need. Need-based aid may come in the form of grants, scholarships, subsidized loans, and federal work-study. 


Merit-based aid refers to scholarships that are awarded based on academic performance and extracurricular accomplishments. Colleges may consider the following when awarding merit scholarships: demonstrated academic excellence, awards and honors, community service, skills and talents, extracurricular and leadership involvement, initiatives or projects, and how you’ve made an impact in your school and/or the broader community. 

How can I receive financial aid?


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is used by private and public colleges to determine how much financial aid you need. As the name implies, there is no cost to complete the FAFSA. You may apply directly on the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid application portal for free. 

Federal student aid is money from the federal government that comes in the form of grants, loans, and work-study funds in order to help pay for college. Students must fill out the FAFSA in order to be considered for federal student aid and will also need to reapply for financial aid each year they are in college. Unlike loans, grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back, and the Federal Pell Grant is currently set at $6,345 for the 2020-21 award year. 

Need-based aid is not limited to financial assistance from the federal government. In addition to the FAFSA, some colleges also require students to submit the CollegeBoard’s CSS Profile in order to be evaluated for institutional financial aid

Institutional aid is money provided directly by the college to the student. There are over 400 colleges and universities using the CSS Profile, the majority of which are private schools. All eight Ivy League universities use the information on the applicant’s CSS Profile in their financial aid award calculations. Therefore, it is important to visit each school’s financial aid website to verify whether they require applicants to submit the CSS Profile. 


Can I receive a combination of both need-based and merit-based aid?

Yes, depending on the school. It is indeed possible to receive both need-based and merit-based aid from the same college; however, some schools, such as the Ivies, do not provide merit-based aid.  


How can I be considered for merit scholarships?

Typically, you are automatically considered for merit scholarships once you apply to the college, and, if required, submit your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. However, schools may require an additional essay or other supplemental materials to be considered for certain merit scholarships.  


Some merit scholarships may also have more defined eligibility criteria such as GPA and test score requirements, or they may be limited to students from certain geographical areas, underrepresented communities, or students who will be pursuing studies in a particular field. For example, some merit scholarships may be reserved for engineering students, while others may be limited to applicants from the state where the school is located. Keep in mind that certain colleges, such as Boston University and USC, require students to submit their applications at an earlier deadline in order to be considered for merit scholarships. 


Many public state schools, such as the University of Michigan and University of Texas at Austin, as well as private institutions offer merit scholarships. The amount awarded for merit-based scholarships usually ranges from a few thousand dollars to cover full tuition. Most are renewable throughout all four years of undergraduate studies, provided the student meets their academic requirements. Colleges will typically designate an approximate number of these scholarships per year. 


Institutional scholarships that are awarded by the school may be need-based, merit-based, or a combination of the two. While merit-based scholarships may be awarded using a “need-blind” approach, i.e. the applicant’s financial need is not considered when making a determination, this is not always the case. Some schools will review the information on the FAFSA to provide their merit scholarships. Therefore, even those students who believe they will not qualify for need-based aid are still strongly encouraged to submit the FAFSA.


Do Ivy League universities offer merit scholarships?

Ivy League schools do not offer merit-based financial aid; instead, their financial aid is awarded based on demonstrated need, which is determined using the financial information shared on the FAFSA and CSS profile. With annual costs of tuition between $50-60k per year, Ivy League schools offer generous financial aid awards for families who earn less than approximately $65,000 annually (this number varies depending on the school). 

So, just how generous are these award packages?

Colleges and universities who meet 100% of demonstrated financial need are committed to providing the financial aid necessary for you to attend their school. Using the financial information provided on your FAFSA and/or CSS profile, they determine how much your family can contribute to your college education (Expected Family Contribution or EFC), compare it to the cost of attendance (COA), and meet the rest of your financial need through awarding grants, scholarships, and/or loans. Schools such as Amherst, Yale, and Harvard are committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated need with no loans as part of their award packages.

Ivy League universities aim to cover full tuition, room, and board for families with an annual income that is less than an amount determined by the school. Thus, for many high-achieving, low-income students who earn admission to the Ivies, the cost of attending universities such as Harvard, Brown, or Cornell can prove to be more affordable than attending a public state school. For these reasons, it is important to not let the sticker price deter you from applying to a school that is an excellent match for your academic interests and professional goals. 

There are plenty of financial aid opportunities available to help finance your college education. So many qualified students deny themselves the chance of being admitted before they even apply and choose not to submit their application. For students with a demonstrated financial need, the sticker price often does not reflect what you will actually pay to attend the school. 

It is important to submit your college application along with the FAFSA and/or CSS profile in order for your financial need to be evaluated. Many schools offer robust financial aid award packages that include need-based aid and/or merit scholarships. 

The first step is to apply.