I was one of those people. I had a merit scholarship. It paid a nice chunk of my tuition, so it was nothing to sneeze at. The National Merit Scholarship Program was and probably still is one of the most prestigious programs for young scholars, providing stipends to gifted students for tuition at the college of their choice. Many students who went to MIT in my day had the benefit of a National Merit Scholarship. For some, it was $500 a year, but some received stipends as high as $1,500 a year (and as tuition got progressively more expensive, that limit was raised to $2,000 a year).
Getting a National Merit Scholarship was nothing more difficult than scoring well on the National Merit Scholarship Qualify Test. Most students know this is the Pre-SAT or PSAT. It's supposed to be a warm-up for the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT, which students take in their junior or senior years (or both; some students try to improve their scores so they can improve their chances of getting into the college of their choice). But, if you were intent on qualifying for the scholarship, that practice SAT was anything but, and it gave you a good reason to sweat out the spring months of your sophomore year.
Like the SAT, the PSAT came in two parts - English and Math, but unlike the SAT, the English score counted for twice what the math score counted (and I understand that the SAT as administered these days is scored differently than it was in my day). The emphasis on the verbal score did not work to my advantage, since my math score was about 80 points higher than my verbal score. My total score was not good enough for the National Merit people to give me a stipend, but there were several companies that pitched in with scholarships of their own that they handed out to the children of their employees based on their NMSQT scores. I was fortunate enough to score a scholarship through Shell Oil, and because I was bound for MIT, they were especially generous; they had heard horror stories about MIT's tuition.
As I mentioned, the scholarship paid a substantial portion of my tuition. Of course, this was back in the '70s, when tuition at MIT was about $3,500 a year (and it was still Too Damn Much), so a four-year scholarship that paid $1,500 a year went pretty far. Since those days, tuition at MIT has soared into the stratosphere - to over $50,000 a year. Room and board hasn't gotten any cheaper, either. And then there are books, computer accessories, lab materials, condoms (this assumes that the average MIT student was ever going to be in a situation where usage was going to be a concern) and all the other things you need to succeed at MIT. Plus, you need some walking-around money, especially if you intend to go out on the town with your sweetie (which also presumes you might need condoms).
I'm not sure if the merit scholarships have kept up with inflation, much less tuition increases and the prices of books and condoms (don't laugh - I was one of those young men who got the condom lecture from my father on my way to the 'Tute). These days, most students still have to find an after-class job, and even then, they will still take out a sizable student loan, to which they will be enslaved for many years. Even then, the scholarships, loans and the extra money from the after-hours job may not be enough to cover everything, so many colleges end up subsidizing tuition for the students they want. This they do by hitting up the alumni for money and by soliciting research grants and cranking out publications and patents. That's why it's a publish or perish world in academia. A college administrator's lot is not a happy one.
While the National Merit Scholars still have to struggle to make ends meet, there is one group of scholars that, then as now, continue to do well - the student athletes. Their scholarships not only pay tuition, but they also get their meals taken care of; they have the training table. And if you believe those nice folks at Ohio State and the University of Miami, there are any number of business opportunities that enterprising student athletes can avail themselves of. One day, MIT will be a nationally-ranked football powerhouse and can make those sorts of enterprises available to its students. Till then, there's always Draper Labs.