I've talked about the National Merit awards in recent posts and have mentioned the possibility of scholarships based on being named a semifinalist or finalist.
The College Confidential website has a list of full or almost full scholarships available to National Merit Finalists. The beauty of these scholarships is that they are automatic. In many cases additional scholarships can be piled on so that a student truly attends college for free, with tuition, books, room, board and spending money provided. The latter takes some application and effort.
Many solid state universities have established top-notch Honors Colleges over the past 20 years or so. Students in the honors program live with other honors students, take many of their classes with other honors students, get first choice of classes, and are essentially treated like minor royalty by the university.
The College Confidential list is easy enough to read that I don't need to elaborate much. But I will mention three programs:
Ole Miss enrolled 40 National Merit Finalists last year. Most, no doubt, are in the McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College. Ole Miss guarantees Finalists full tuition and the cost of a dorm room, with additional scholarship money available. The Honors College has been very aggressive in trying to keep some of the best Mississippi students in-state, which translates into lots of potential merit aid. Last year the average ACT score of the roughly 200 students admitted to the Honors College was between 31 and 32. This group of kids is as talented a bunch as you will find almost anywhere.
The University of Alabama has been one of the most active in the country in recruiting Finalists. Last year 241 Finalists enrolled at UA. And for good reason; the UA National Scholars program is one of the best in the nation, offering 10 semesters of free tuition (and more) that can be used for both undergraduate and graduate work. So a student who arrives with a substantial number of hours through Advanced Placement or dual enrollment can go to graduate school free or almost free.
I'm not sure how many people from the Southeast consider the University of Oklahoma, but it also boasts a tremendous Finalist package. It's not a full ride, but like Alabama it is a 10 semester award that can be used for both undergraduate and gradate school. Oklahoma houses its National Scholars together and gives them all sorts of other perks. A full-time administrator is devoted solely to providing special assistance and advice to these students.
I could go on, but there is no need to. It's worth the effort to set a goal of being a National Merit Finalist.
And what if a student sets this as a goal and doesn't make it? Even the best student can have a bad test day. All is not lost. Most of these schools offer good merit aid for students with high ACT scores and good grades. So even if a student has a bad day when he takes the PSAT, he can still, with luck and effort, get a nearly full ride. But it won't be automatic, which is the beauty of the Finalist scholarships.