Tuitions are slated to rise over the next years as public schools feel the pressure of state government belt tightening, and private schools encounter a drop off of funds. One remedy might be to apply to the service academies , which will cover all your costs and pay you a monthly stipend, or attend tuition-free schools (with some, such as Deep Springs, actually picking up all costs) . Or, if you're lucky enough to gain admission to the most selective schools, you might find some incredible blue light specials: Stanford is eliminating tuition completely for students from families earning less than $100,000; Dartmouth & MIT are eliminating tuition for students from families earning less than $75,000; Harvard is implementing a descending payment scale for families earning less than $180,000. For families earning between $120,000 and 180,000, only 10% of their income will be paid to cover tuition; under $60,000, the family pays nothing.
If, however, these alternatives do not fit into your college plans, don't despair. Now is a good time to start thinking about how you're going to leverage your application in the world of financial aid. No matter where you are in high school, there is one cardinal rule: get the best grades possible, and study for your standardized tests. Many schools, such as University of Nevada, Reno, award scholarships based on combinations of high standardized scores and GPAs. The higher your grades and test scores, the more options you will have to leverage your application
Next, you need to apply to a lot of schools. Look hard for schools where there might be a shortage of candidates with your type of qualities. If the school needs male trombone players, and it's a school of interest, get your application in. Don't fall in love with one school and decide that you're going to apply Early Decision: if you do get in, your efforts to secure grants will be hampered. The admissions office does not have to negotiate very hard with you. It will, of course, give you enough to make attending affordable (or you can withdraw from the commitment), but the word 'affordable' has many definitions.
Next, determine the total cost of attending each school on your list. One quick way to do this is to use College Navigator (https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/), which contains 'estimated student expenses' and detailed financial aid information. Knowing your student expenses, you then deduct your grants and scholarships to determine your out-of-pocket expenses. You also need to know, should you be offered any scholarships, what are the requirements to get them renewed for each year you attend. Some schools offer substantial grants for freshman year. Once in, however, the renewal of these scholarships sometimes becomes extremely difficult.
Also be aware of how long it will take to get your degree. For example, if you're attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and planning to study engineering, in all likelihood it's going to take 5-6 years to get your degree, not the standard 4. Again, you can find out about retention and graduation rates on College Navigator. This fact needs to be considered when negotiating your financial aid package with the admissions office.
The key to this exercise is to get a mix of colleges interested in your application. You want them to feel the heat of competition. Then, you want to compare their offers. Sure, Yale's director of student financial services, Caesar Storlazzi, will tell you Yale, "does not match awards from other schools." Yet, if you've been accepted, Yale wants you. Consequently, Mr. Storlazzi adds, "(after) seeing the copy of an award from another school (it) often enables us to review the Yale 'needs analysis' and ask questions of the family to help us in reviewing our calculation of the parents' contribution." (US News and World Report, September 7, 2007, "How to Leverage Your Aid" by Kim Clark) In other words, they're ready to play ball.