The Ivy Coach Daily

June 22, 2024

Do Ivy League Schools Offer Scholarships?

A student walks across Dartmouth College's Green.

Previously Published on February 20, 2012:

We’ve all seen the movies where the intrepid high schooler who works hard and overcomes adversity is rewarded for their adventures with a “scholarship” from Harvard. Some of us may have even seen parents brag that their genius child has been admitted to Yale “on a full scholarship!” Unfortunately for these people, who would like to fantasize that the Ivy League rewards their best applicants with lavish merit-based aid, such brags and boasts have no basis in reality. Schools in the Ivy League uniformly do not offer admitted students merit-based aid. This policy is what makes the Ivy League the Ivy League! The same goes for recruited athletes, world-renowned prodigies, and even movie protagonists!

Why the Ivy League Doesn’t Offer Merit-Based Scholarships

Every student admitted to the Ivy League is distinguished in their own right. If these schools were to start rewarding individual scholarships based on academic, artistic, or pre-professional merit, every single Ivy League student would be eligible for merit-based aid. The simple fact of your admission to one of these schools is proof that you sit atop the student meritocracy. To make further distinctions among students would be nonsensical. It’s important to keep in mind that most Ivy League schools are relatively small. Princeton, for example, only has an undergraduate student body of roughly 5,300. In these compact communities, there is a mutual understanding that everyone made it past a certain merit-based benchmark, which is how they wound up there in the first place. 

Think of it this way: a large state college with 30,000 undergraduates might operate a merit-based scholarship program that gives free rides or reduced-tuition to 5,000 of those students, whereas an Ivy League school is exclusively composed of those elect few students. But instead of free tuition, admission itself is the reward. And this reward is much more valuable than a free ride at a lesser school. College graduates with Ivy League degrees have access to a greater array of professional opportunities, make more money several years into their careers, and have access to more exclusive social networks than their non-Ivy League counterparts.

The Ivy League Alternative to Merit-Based Aid: Robust Financial Aid

The Ivy League aversion to merit-based aid is not just a philosophical position, it’s also a practical one! Due to many factors, including the legacy admissions boost, the “development” case admissions boost, and the recruited athlete to the Ivy League pipeline, wealthy students are overrepresented on Ivy League campuses. These privileged kids do not need merit-based aid, or any aid for that matter! If they are academically-distinguished enough, a lesser school may have offered them tons of scholarship money, but what would it matter? They still choose the Ivy League because they know they will not receive a better education anywhere else, and money is no object to them.

On the other hand, Ivy League admissions officers highly prize low-income and first-generation students, who round out the socioeconomic diversity of an incoming class. These students would not be able to attend Ivy League schools, which come with high-five-figure tuition price tags, if it were not for the robust financial aid packages that come with admission. Each Ivy League school makes it a priority to cover 100% of the demonstrated financial need of each student, and all but Cornell and Dartmouth have no-loan policies. Using family income tax returns and the FAFSA, Ivy League schools calculate how much they believe your family can afford to pay, and that’s what they charge you. This is true of all domestic students, but not always true of international students.

You might receive a $50,000 aid package to attend Columbia, but this is by no means a “scholarship” or “merit-based.” These schools have a very noblesse oblige way of thinking about higher education: even the poorest of our students should be given access to our esteemed facilities, and they should only pay what they can. Of course, across the Ivy League, roughly 1 in 2 students are not on any financial aid at all, which speaks to the socioeconomic diversity problem that has long plagued this bastion of American privilege. 

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