Analyze your Finances
The vast majority of federal financial aid goes to families with incomes below about $50,000. But many private colleges award school scholarships to students whose parents earn up to $180,000. There are several online calculators such as FinAid's and the College Board's that help you estimate how much you'll be expected to come up with.
No matter what your financial situation, you should fill out a FAFSA as soon as possible. Don't wait to fill out your tax forms first. You can estimate your income now and correct the numbers later. Even if the student is part of the 50 percent of undergraduates who don't receive any scholarships, the FAFSA will at least qualify the student for cheap federal student loans like Staffords, which are capped at 6.8 percent (plus fees).
CSS/Financial Aid Profile
See if any of your target schools or the charities that offer scholarships in your field ask financial aid applicants to fill out the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile. The College Board charges $25 to send a financial aid application to one school and $16 for every school after that.
If you're single, divorced, or widowed and considering remarrying—watch out! The federal financial aid formula will expect a stepparent to contribute income to your child's bills, no matter what kind of prenuptial agreement you have. There may be a big financial aid reward if you choose a delay or simply cohabitation.
If you have a lot of equity in a home or small business, focus on pubic schools that rely only on the FAFSA, which exempts home equity and small-business assets. Many private colleges, especially those that ask for the CSS/Profile, expect parents to contribute some of their home equity and assets to the child's college bills.
The Right Schools
If you think you'll qualify as needy, seek out schools more likely to give need-based aid. That includes schools that have joined the "568 Group"; schools that require the CSS/Profile; many public universities with state-funded, need-based programs; and private schools with the biggest endowments. You can check U.S. News's lists of the most generous schools and the Chronicle of Higher Education's chart of the wealthiest schools.
Remember that, increasingly, colleges are using scholarships to fill their own "need" rather than that of their students. So search for colleges that "need" your student because of, for example, gender imbalance, geographic diversity, sports skills, high grades, or some other characteristic.