Berry College
Berry College
Lauren Neumann—Berry College

The odds of winning a college scholarship are probably better than you think.

In part because of a decline in the number of 18-year-olds, scores of private colleges are now worried about filling their seats -- and in response are awarding merit scholarships to an increasing number of students.

Of course, not all of these new scholarships are large. Research shows that even comparatively small grants of a few thousand dollars or so -- especially if presented with a fancy name like "Presidential Scholarship" -- often flatter students into enrolling. Indeed, this type of aid is often derided as“vanity” or “cocktail" aid.

“It makes parents feel good to go to cocktail parties and talk about the scholarship their son or daughter got,” says Donald Hossler, who formerly oversaw admissions and financial aid at Indiana University and is now a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. (Here's a list of 91 colleges where every student gets a scholarship.)

Even so, small scholarships can add up. College advisors and aid experts urge students to consider a school's total aid package -- both the so-called "merit" grants and "need-based" aid -- against the list price to find the most affordable schools.

Indeed, tuition has gotten so expensive that middle- and even upper middle- class families can now qualify for grants based on the family's financial need, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Students from families earning north of $200,000 often qualify for “need-based” grants at Ivy League and other generous private colleges, for instance.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution, offers one caution when assessing a school's scholarship aid. Beyond need-based grants, she says, the largest merit scholarships typically go to students with grades and test scores far above a school's average. That means students should remember to check the quality of a school that offers a large scholarship.

To help you, Money dug into its Best Colleges database to find 46 high-value schools where you'll have good chances of landing significant scholarship aid. All of the following colleges:

  • Have good graduation rates (i.e. that have graduation rates that are at least the median for their type or are unusually high for the student body they serve).
  • Give "merit" scholarships to at least 25% of their undergraduates.
  • Give scholarships that, on average, cover at least 25% of the cost of attendance and are large enough to bring the total net cost of attendance for recipients below $40,000 a year.

The schools listed below are ranked by a combination of the percentage of students who receive aid, the size of the average grant, and the affordability of the college for those who receive the grants. Where two or more schools share a rank, there was a tie. We also included average earnings of those who graduated within the last five years, as reported to PayScale.