Why you won’t get a full ride to Harvard on a National Merit Scholarship

After I posted a list of reasons that students should continue to consider passing up the new SAT in favor of the ACT, I received messages from a couple of readers who said that they shared my misgiving about the redesigned test, but that they had a very practical concern regarding that exam: namely, the PSAT and qualification for National Merit Scholarships.

In both cases, they indicated that their children would be dependent on scholarship money to attend college, and that they could not afford to pass up the opportunities offered by the National Merit program.

I confess that this was the last thing on my mind when I wrote the list, but it is a very real concern, and I appreciate having it called to my attention.

I do want to address the issue here, albeit with the caveat that I am not a financial aid expert, and that you should check with guidance counselors and individual colleges because policies and guidelines and vary from school to school.

I’m going to go into a lot more detail below, but in a nutshell: If you are unable to afford college without a full scholarship and are focusing on a group of less selective public universities, primarily in the (Mid)west and South, that offer large amounts of aid to students with high stats in order to boost their rankings, then yes, National Merit can count for a lot. But otherwise, it may have little to no effect on the amount of aid you ultimately receive.

If you are looking at highly selective schools, as many students aiming for National Merit are, you probably do not need to base your decision regarding SAT vs. ACT solely on the possibility of obtaining aid from that source.

Here’s why:

Approximately 1.5 million students take the PSAT each year. Of those students, the top approximately 1% in each state are automatically named National Merit Semifinalists by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Cutoffs are set by state and vary significantly; cutoffs in traditionally high-achieving states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey are substantially higher than cutoffs in traditionally low-achieving states such as Mississippi in New Mexico.

In total, around 16,000 students receive National Merit Semifinalist status. In order to become Finalists, they must be endorsed by their schools, fill out an application detailing grades and extracurricular activities, write an essay, and take the SAT to confirm their scores.

Most Semifinalists (about 15,000) advance to Finalist status, and of those students, around half will ultimately be named National Merit Scholars.

Although the designation of “National Merit Scholar” is considered an honor, the actual payoff in terms of reducing college costs varies enormously and depends on what type of institution a student wants to attend.

First, a few universities offer substantial scholarships to Semifinalists, so if students with that designation want to attend such a school and decide they do not want to take the SAT, they can obtain a substantial amount of money regardless. These schools include the University of Maine and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Most universities, however, require that students obtain Finalist status in order to be eligible for full-tuition scholarships. Some of them also have GPA requirements. Representative schools include the University of Alaska, the University of Arizona, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and North Dakota State.

In addition, students who advance to Finalist status become eligible for corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, which are open to children of employees of participating companies or, in some cases, residents of communities that those companies serve. About 1,000 corporate-backed scholarships are given out, ranging from $500 to $10,000 dollars. Some are one-time grants, while others are renewable for four years.

Finally, some schools, such as the University of Massachusetts-Amerhest, only offer full-tuition scholarships to students who have actually been named National Merit Scholars.

It is important to understand that it is an individual school’s choice to offer significant tuition discounts, full-ride or otherwise, to National Merit Scholars; the funds do not come from NMSC itself. In fact, actual National Merit Scholarships themselves are worth only $2,500.

It is also important to understand that although there are a number of prestigious universities that participate in National Merit, most of these schools offer fairly modest amounts of scholarship money on top of the actual National Merit scholarship. Usually, the amount is roughly comparable to the amount of the NM scholarship itself, with some schools offering a bit more (the University of Chicago offers a minimum of $4,000, for instance) and some a bit less. 

Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that the more prestigious the college, the fewer NM scholarships are offered, and the smaller the amount of those grants. Conversely, the less prestigious the college, the more NM scholarships are offered, and the higher the amount of those grants. 

The reason is that highly competitive schools such as Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and Emory do not have a shortage of high-achieving applicants, and they can afford to allocate aid primarily based on need. Although they may offer full-tuition scholarships to students at the very top of their applicant pools (students for whom they are competing with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), they do not automatically hand out these scholarships to NMSC Finalists the same way lower-ranked state universities do. The Ivies do not offer institutional National Merit Scholarships, or indeed any merit scholarships whatsoever. 

Northwestern, for example, offers only $2,000 in additional aid, bringing the total to a $4,500. The school makes clear that students who receive corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships cannot also receive university-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, limiting the amount of NM aid a student can receive.

You should also be aware that elite schools have recently been reducing the number of National Merit scholars they support, in some cases from well over 100 to no more than a few dozen. So while certain elite schools may enroll large numbers of National Merit Scholars, those students are not necessarily being supported financially by the schools themselves — either that, or they are only receiving trivial amounts of merit aid relative to the cost of attendance. 

Likewise, a number of well-known universities, including the University of Texas-Austin and New York University, and the the Universities of Michigan and Virginia, have withdrawn from participation entirely, although they may still offer their own merit programs.

The other, exceedingly important point to be aware of is that merit aid virtually always replaces need-based aid; it does not supplement it.

Middlebury College, which admits students on a need-blind basis and does not offer merit scholarships, summarizes this policy clearly:

Middlebury College allows outside scholarships, such as local scholarships, high school awards, subsidies from parents’ employers or National Merit funds, to first replace the self-help (work and loan) component of the financial aid award. Any outside scholarship aid exceeding the self-help will then reduce Middlebury grant aid dollar for dollar. Outside aid cannot be used to reduce or replace your Family Contribution (EFC).

Even at a school that does offer matching NMSC grants, such at the University of Chicago, you can assume that the same will be true. If a student receives $7,500/year through a combination of $2500 from the NMSC and $5,000 from the school, that $7,500 will be used to reduce the size of any need-based grants the student is awarded; it will not be awarded on top of those need-based grants. The EFC will remain unchanged.

Obviously, at elite private institutions, merit aid policies tend to be most beneficial to well-off students who can almost afford sticker price, but who aren’t going to turn down an extra $5-10K.

Students from families who make too much money to receive significant need-based merit aid at elite private colleges, and who don’t qualify for one of the very few full-ride (non-NMSC) merit scholarships some of those institutions, may be unable to fill the gap through NMSC alone.

So the bottom line is as follows:

If you are a high-achieving student who is not necessarily aiming for elite schools, and whose ability to attend college is entirely dependent on your ability to secure a full scholarship, then yes, you should probably take the PSAT seriously, regardless of how ill-managed the rollout of the new SAT has been. If money is that serious a concern, you are best off pursuing every opportunity open to you, and you may discover ones you did not even know about.

That said, if you are a stellar test-taker and are committed to taking the ACT, it is unlikely that you will suffer too much. The vast majority of the universities that offer significant scholarships to NMS Finalists, also offer equally substantial aid to students who achieve high scores on the ACT. If you see that one of your target schools offers automatic merit scholarships for NM qualifiers but does not mention the ACT, call the financial aid office and ask about what sort of merit aid is available for ACT-takers. Colleges do not always put every piece of information on their websites. 

If you are a high-achieving but very needy student, you should also be aware that you may in fact be eligible for a free ride at some elite schools. It is true that the wealthiest colleges do not offer merit scholarships, but the flip side is that they can afford to offer enormous amounts of aid to their poorest applicants. You shouldn’t count Harvard out entirely — just know that you won’t be attending on a National Merit Scholarship. 

If you fall into the “too-wealthy-for-need-based-aid-but-too-poor-for-sticker-price” category, the amount of effort you expend in pursuit of National Merit should depend on a number of factors: how much time you will have to spend studying for the PSAT (are you almost there, or do you need another 150 points?), and what the tradeoff is in terms of spending time studying for that test vs. doing other activities; what type of school you are aiming to attend (public vs. private), and what sort of other scholarship opportunities it offers; and just how much aid you will require to make paying for a particular college feasible. These are individual decisions, and they must be made on a case-by-case basis. 

Finally, if you are a high-achieving student for whom financial aid is not a significant concern, and you are aiming to attend the most prestigious college you can be admitted to, then you should not base the SAT vs. ACT decision on National Merit. The reality is that elite colleges receive so many applications from recognized students that this factor will carry very little weight. Your actual SAT or ACT scores and overall record of achievement, both in and outside the classroom, will be the deciding factors. 

An analysis of problems with PSAT scores, courtesy of Compass Education

Apparently I’m not the only one who has noticed something very odd about PSAT score reports. California-based Compass Education has produced a report analyzing some of the inconsistencies in this year’s scores.

The report raises more questions than it answers, but the findings themselves are very interesting. For anyone who has the time and the inclination, it’s well worth reading.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Test-takers are compared to students who didn’t even take the test and may never take the test.
  • In calculating percentiles, the College Board relied on an undisclosed sample method when it could have relied on scores from students who actually took the exam.
  • 3% of students scored in the 99th percentile.
  • In some parts of the scale, scores were raised as much as 10 percentage points between 2014 and 2015.
  • More sophomores than juniors obtained top scores.
  • Reading/writing benchmarks for both sophomores and juniors have been lowered by over 100 points; at the same time, the elimination of the wrong-answer penalty would permit a student to approach the benchmark while guessing randomly on every single question.
Sleight of hand: an illustration of PSAT score inflation

Sleight of hand: an illustration of PSAT score inflation

A couple of posts back, I wrote about a recent Washington Post article in which a tutor named Ned Johnson pointed out that the College Board might be giving students an exaggeratedly rosy picture of their performance on the PSAT by creating two score percentiles: a “user” percentile based on the group of students who actually took the test; and a “national percentile” based on how the student would rank if every 11th (or 10th) grader in the United States took the test — a percentile almost guaranteed to be higher than the national percentile. 

When I read Johnson’s analysis, I assumed that both percentiles would be listed on the score report. But actually, there’s an additional layer of distortion not mentioned in the article. 

I stumbled on it quite by accident. I’d seen a PDF-form PSAT score report, and although I only recalled seeing one set of percentiles listed, I assumed that the other set must be on the report somewhere and that I simply hadn’t noticed them.

A few days ago, however, a longtime reader of this blog was kind enough to offer me access to her son’s PSAT so that I could see the actual test. Since it hasn’t been released in booklet form, the easiest way to give me access was simply to let me log in to her son’s account (it’s amazing what strangers trust me with!).

When I logged in, I did in fact see the two sets of percentiles, with the national, higher percentile of course listed first.  But then I noticed the “download report” button, and something occurred to me. The earlier PDF report I’d seen absolutely did not present the two sets of percentiles as clearly as the online report did — of that I was positive.

So I downloaded a report, and sure enough, only the national percentiles were listed. The user percentile — the ranking based on the group students who actually took the test — was completely absent. I looked over every inch of that report, as well as the earlier report I’d seen, and I could not find the user percentile anywhere.

Unfortunately (well, fortunately for him, unfortunately for me), the student in question had scored extremely well, so the discrepancy between the two percentiles was barely noticeable. For a student with a score 200 points lower, the gap would be more pronounced. Nevertheless, I’m posting the two images here (with permission) to illustrate the difference in how the percentiles are reported on the different reports.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 8.19.42 PMScreen Shot 2016-01-16 at 5.48.09 PM

Somehow I didn’t think the College Board would be quite so brazen in its attempt to mislead students, but apparently I underestimated how dirty they’re willing to play. Giving two percentiles is one thing, but omitting the lower one entirely from the report format that most people will actually pay attention to is really a new low. 

I’ve been hearing tutors comment that they’ve never seen so many students obtain reading scores in the 99th percentile, which apparently extends all the way down to 680/760 for the national percentile, and 700/760 for the user percentile. Well…that’s what happens when a curve is designed to inflate scores. But hey, if it makes students and their parents happy, and boosts market share, that’s all that counts, right? Shareholders must be appeased. 

Incidentally, the “college readiness” benchmark for 11th grade reading is now set at 390. 390. In contrast, the I confess: I tried to figure out what that  corresponds to on the old test, but looking at the concordance chart gave me such a headache that I gave up. (If anyone wants to explain it me, you’re welcome to do so.) At any rate, it’s still shockingly low — the benchmark on the old test was 550 — as well as a whopping 110 points lower than the math benchmark. There’s also an “approaching readiness” category, which further extends the wiggle room. 

A few months back, before any of this had been released, I wrote that the College Board would create a curve to support the desired narrative. If the primary goal was to pave the way for a further set of reforms, then scores would fall; if the primary goal was to recapture market share, then scores would rise. I guess it’s clear now which way they decided to go. 

Gosh, could the College Board be trying to inflate PSAT scores?

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the College Board might be trying to pull some sort of sleight-of-hand with scores for the new test. 

In this Washington Post article about the (extremely delayed) release of 2015 PSAT scores, Ned Johnson of PrepMatters writes: 

Here’s the most interesting point: College Board seems to be inflating the percentiles. Perhaps not technically changing the percentiles but effectively presenting a rosier picture by an interesting change to score reports. From the College Board website, there is this explanation about percentiles:

Percentiles
A percentile is a number between 0 and 100 that shows how you rank compared to other students. It represents the percentage of students in a particular grade whose scores fall at or below your score. For example, a 10th-grade student whose math percentile is 57 scored higher or equal to 57 percent of 10th-graders.

You’ll see two percentiles:

The Nationally Representative Sample percentile shows how your score compares to the scores of all U.S. students in a particular grade, including those who don’t typically take the test.
The User Percentile — Nation shows how your score compares to the scores of only some U.S. students in a particular grade, a group limited to students who typically take the test.

What does that mean? Nationally Representative Sample percentile is how you would stack up if every student took the test. So, your score is likely to be higher on the scale of Nationally Representative Sample percentile than actual User Percentile.

On the PSAT score reports, College Board uses the (seemingly inflated) Nationally Representative score, which, again, bakes in scores of students who DID NOT ACTUALLY TAKE THE TEST but, had they been included, would have presumably scored lower. The old PSAT gave percentiles of only the students who actually took the test.

For example, I just got a score from a junior; 1250 is reported 94th percentile as Nationally Representative Sample percentile. Using the College Board concordance table, her 1250 would be a selection index of 181 or 182 on last year’s PSAT. In 2014, a selection index of 182 was 89th percentile. In 2013, it was 88th percentile. It sure looks to me that College Board is trying to flatter students. Why might that be? They like them? Worried about their feeling good about the test? Maybe. Might it be a clever statistical sleight of hand to make taking the SAT seem like a better idea than taking the ACT? Nah, that’d be going too far.

I’m assuming that last sentence is intended to be taken ironically. 

One quibble. Later in the article, Johnson also writes that “If the PSAT percentiles are in fact “enhanced,” they may not be perfect predictors of SAT success, so take a practice SAT.” But if PSAT percentiles are “enhanced,” who is to say that SAT percentiles won’t be “enhanced” as well?

Based on the revisions to the AP exams, the College Board’s formula seems to go something like this:

(1) take a well-constructed, reasonably valid test, one for which years of data collection exists, and declare that it is no longer relevant to the needs of 21st century students.

(2) Replace existing test with a more “holistic,” seemingly more rigorous exam, for which the vast majority of students will be inadequately prepared.

(3) Create a curve for the new exam that artificially inflates scores. 

(4) Proclaim students “college ready” when they may be still lacking fundamental skills. 

(5) Find another exam, and repeat the process.