National Merit Scholars… as brand strength indicators

National Merit Scholars: What do the numbers say about brand strength?

National Merit Scholars enrolled each fall are for many colleges and universities an important indicator of their brand strength among high achieving academic super-stars. These students end up enrolled at relatively few schools. Many of the schools are happy each year if they enroll just two or three Scholars. National Merit Scholars pay no tuition while in college.

In 2008, 8,486 National Merit Scholars enrolled at 219 private and 149 public institutions.

Is the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled a serious indicator of brand strength in higher education? Simply looking at the number enrolled doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know: Harvard College, for instance, was at the top in 2008 with 285, followed closely by University of Texas-Austin with 281. A host of schools (173) enrolled 5 or less.

But there’s another way to look at what National Merit enrollment tells us about brand strength, particularly among especially prestigious academic names: how many National Merit scholars had their tuition paid by external donors and how many were paid by the host school itself. Harvard contribued none of its own money to enroll those 288 freshmen, while UT-Austin provided the funds to sponor 213 of its 281 scholars. In other words, if schools were ranked by the number of National Merit scholars they had to pay for themselves, rankings would look much different.

The Top 20 National Merit Schools: Who Pays for Tuition?

Consider the 20 schools that enrolled at least 100 National Merit Scholars in 2008.

Only 5 of the 20 did not sponsor any scholars themselves:

  • Harvard College, 285 scholars
  • Yale University, 213 scholars
  • Princeton University, 175 scholars
  • Stanford University, 147 scholars
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 114 scholars.

Based on this measure of brand strength, these are the superstars in the quest for National Merit students.

The other 15 reach 100+ status by sponsoring most of their scholars themselves:

  • Arizona State University, 143 of 169
  • Georgia Institute of Technology, 70 of 105
  • New York University, 100 of 127
  • Northwestern University, 191 of 239
  • Ohio State University – Columbus, 98 of 120
  • Rice University, 104 of 169
  • Texas A&M – College Station, 119 of 161
  • University of Chicago, 148 of 222
  • University of Florida, 134 of 166
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 106 of 142
  • University of Oklahoma, 147 of 178
  • University of Southern California, 216 of 254
  • University of Texas – Austin, 213 of 281
  • Vanderbilt University, 107 of 147
  • Washington University in St. Louis, 161 of 228

Opting Out of the National Merit Academic Arms Race

It is also obvious from scanning the list that some schools with high academic prestige elect not to increase the National Merit Scholar numbers by adding their own resources. Perhaps they believe their brand reputation is strong enough to not need the boost of additional National Merit winners. Consider this sample:

  • Brown University, 88 scholars
  • Carnegie Mellon University, 27 scholars
  • Columbia University, 74 scholars
  • Cornell University, 66 scholars
  • Dartmouth College, 78 scholars
  • Duke University, 99 scholars
  • Georgetown University, 46 scholars
  • UC-Berkeley, 85 scholars
  • University of Michigan 57 scholars
  • University of Pennsylvania, 98 scholars

Most of these 10 schools (and many others) would enroll more National Merit scholars if they added their own funds to the available scholarship pool in the same proportion as 15 of the top 20 listed. If National Merit Scholars enrolled is a measure of brand strength, it makes sense to subtract the “institution-sponsored” students from the total when comparing schools on this list. 

For more details on the entire group of 368 schools, visit the National Merit Corporation’s Annual Report.

That’s all for now.


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