The goal: to get just the right mix of colleges so that aid officers, who can check a student's aid application to see what other colleges are in the race, will try to lure the student away with lots of grants. Any low-income or middle-class student with a shot at the elite should apply to the schools that offer the most need-based aid, says Rounds. Princeton tops the list, but others with lots of endowment to hand out include the University of Virginia, Rice, Emory, and Pomona.
Call or visit in the fall to get your real price. Because about three fourths of students at pricey private schools receive grants, students and parents should, basically, ignore the prices in college catalogs. Instead, financial aid officers encourage families to contact them in the fall, when their offices are less busy, and ask for aid estimates tailored to their finances and student. And parents should feel free to brag a bit when they visit or call, says Cecil Foster, a college consultant and former enrollment official at the University of South Dakota.
Then, when the aid estimate comes in, it's time to ask some tough questions. Many schools try to inflate their aid packages by including big, expensive loans. The best aid is in the form of grants or scholarships that don't have to be paid back. But even grants can have unexpected strings attached. "A lot of people will get you in the door" by offering big freshman-year scholarships, Foster explains. "You can ask, 'Can I count on this for four years? What GPA does it take to renew it?'"
Many grade-based scholarship programs are actually counting on a percentage of students to lose their scholarships because of poor grades. The original budgeters for Tennessee's hope scholarship, for example, allocated only enough money to cover the program's costs if 45 percent of freshman winners failed to make a 2.75 GPA and lost the scholarship within a year. The program remains within its budget because fully 50 percent of the freshman recipients haven't been making the grade.
Heat up the competition. Students worried that schools won't consider them needy, or whose grades are less than stellar, can aim for lower-tier schools that offer merit grants. One way to set the bait for scholarships is to apply to several schools that compete directly with one another. Pawel Kaczmarek applied to the four major midwestern universities with good business programs within a reasonable driving distance of his suburban Chicago home. He ended up choosing Indiana University, in part because it came up with a $6,000-a-year grant to make sure its out-of-state costs matched what he would have paid in state at the University of Illinois. One of his biggest regrets, the sophomore says now, is that he learned only after he got to school about other ways to lever more aid out of schools. "I wish I knew more about the options," he says.
One often overlooked option, counselors say, is for students to apply to a few colleges at which their grades and test scores put them in the top 25 percent of the student body. Many colleges attempt to raise their statistics—and rankings from U.S. News—by luring high-achieving students with cash. Students can see each school's admissions statistics free of charge at nces.ed.gov, or they can pay $14.95 for access to search tools at U.S. News's premium service.
Compare the offers. Then share. When the decisions arrive in the spring, it's time to start pressing on those levers. Ryan Caro, 18, of Chelsea, Mass., decided to try out the leverage strategy as a high school senior last fall and added a Princeton application to his workload. It paid off in March when Princeton offered him at least $4,000 more than Yale, his first choice. So, coached by the Yale students, he twice visited the financial aid office "and showed them the letters and asked, 'Why is there such a divergence?'" Yale replied with an offer that would cost Caro just $5 more than Princeton. "If you make sure the schools you apply to in the fall have good financial aid policies, you won't be surprised with sticker shock in the spring," he says now.