ACT or SAT Test Scores Can Save You Money on College
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
August 29, 2019
A hot topic for parents of college bound students is always ACT and SAT testing. Parents seek out information to help their students do well on what can be a challenging task for some. At the heart of all the focus on testing is one truth, better test scores can not only get you into the college you want to attend, but also can save money on college through merit scholarships. Let’s take a look at what you need to know.
Knowing your test scores can help you find a good fit college.
Let’s use a sample student who has an ACT score of 29 and is interested in applying to three Ohio colleges–Ohio State, Miami University, and Ohio University. A website we love to use to find admissions stats is Collegedata.com. (A free account is required to search for colleges.)
Each college can be looked up on this site. Clicking on the “admissions” tab will show that among many factors, “testing” is “very important” in the admissions decision of all three. Other very important factors include GPA and course rigor. You’ll be able to see that class rank is also very important to OSU, and Miami University considers some additional factors like essay and recommendations as “very” important too.
While on that admissions tab, check out the “ACT Scores of Enrolled Freshmen” section. On OSU’s page, the average ACT score was 29, the middle 50% range was 27-31, and 51% of the enrolled freshmen had ACT scores of 30-36. Ohio University’s numbers were an average of 24, a middle 50% range of 22-26, and 8% over 30. Miami University’s ACT numbers averaged 29, the middle 50% range was 26-31, and 38% of freshmen scored between 30 and 36.
What do all these numbers mean to you?
Parents can see that their student’s 29 is right in line with the students who have been admitted. At OSU and Miami, a fair number of students scored higher. At Ohio University, that score of 29 is higher than most of the other enrolled freshmen. In general, the student has chosen colleges that won’t be too much of a reach from a purely test score perspective. (As we mentioned above, other factors are part of the holistic decision like GPA, course rigor, etc.)
So how about saving money?
As a good rule of thumb, colleges that have money available to award for merit scholarships will award that money to the top 25% of their applicants. Using the higher number of the middle 50% figures, parents can tell what score is needed to be in the top 25%–over 31 at OSU, over 26 at OU, and over 31 at Miami.
Our sample student needs to score two more points to reach that 31 at OSU and Miami. Parents can use that knowledge to decide whether the extra expense of personal tutoring to raise the score is a good investment. (Again, keep in mind test scores are not the only factor in merit scholarships, but we’re putting a spotlight on them here.)
Be sure to look at the whole picture however.
These three schools award merit aid differently. Ohio State’s merit scholarships are very competitive. Even with a 31, a scholarship is not a sure thing. The student may have a better chance, but it depends on the other students who have applied. They are all competing for the same pot of money.
Some schools, like Miami in our example, will award scholarships to every student who meets their criteria. If you visit the college’s website (here is Miami’s), you will find details on the merit scholarship money available at that school.
Often smaller private colleges with a higher sticker price have more money to award for merit and are looking for students that have those higher scores. In fact, according to the Tuition Discounting Study, an annual report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the average discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen reached 49.9% in 2017/18. Much of that money is need based grants; however, top students with high test scores and GPAs will have the best chance of being awarded merit scholarships.
On Miami’s webpage, you can see that a score of a 29 can earn up to $8,000 per year. By bringing that test score up just one point to a 30, the student can increase their merit aid up to $12,000 per year. That’s quite a motivation to do just a little bit better!
When in doubt, visit a college’s website and search scholarships. The college usually will be eager to share, like Miami did with their big box, when they have money to award for test scores. Often the college will be specific, like OSU, to indicate when merit aid is competitive and not guaranteed.
It also important to understand that these programs often change from year to year. As the academic profile of the school increases, the more difficult it is to be in the top 25% and have the best chance of being awarded the most scholarship money possible. We have score numbers inching up each year at Ohio State.
What if your student is not a good test taker?
Luckily, many colleges are joining part of a growing trend to not require test scores at all. The so-called FairTest schools now number over 1,000. Some schools on the list ask for test scores for class placement or scholarship consideration but don’t base their admissions decision on the score a student received. Some schools ask for scores when other factors like GPA or class rank are lower than they’d like. You can find explanations and details in the footnotes of the FairTest list. The list can be a good starting point for colleges that will be a good fit.
Use the test scores as a tool in your toolbox.
When we’re shopping for a college education, we must take advantage of all the “tools” in our toolbox. College is a competitive business, and they have to incentivize students that they really want with merit scholarships in order to increase their academic profile. Test scores can be a valuable tool to not only find a good fit college academically, but also help guide families to find extra savings on the price.
Originally published 7/2018
September 23, 2022
September 8, 2022