But it is hard to know whether any of those agreements will be in place in 10 years given the current financial difficulties many colleges have.

YES, yes, yes. But-- those with middle schoolers should begin thinking strategically.

Some states with traditionally strong systems are in deep, deep financial trouble within those systems at the moment.

There's a reason why no UC schools are on my DD's list-- even though we're relatively local and one parent is a product of one of the top-notch schools within that VERY fine system. Right now? I wish that I lived in NC. Seriously. But I wouldn't predict that to remain true for a decade, so if my child were seven, no way would I move there for the opportunity that exists right now.

Look at rates of tuition increase over the past two decades within the institutions that you're eyeing. The UC system is particularly eye-watering there, but a good many elite schools have also gone from "no loan" policies to "oh well" in the past seven to ten, too, as their tuition has skyrocketed.

We have found-- at least theoretically-- what Jon posted to be true. The very, very elitest of the elite? They offer no merit aid-- because they don't NEED TO. Oh, sure, they offer financial aid-- to those who qualify. If you're above the 75th percentile in income, that's not going to be much, and even if you're not, "loans" are often the underlying answer to "how do you make sure that 100% of student need is met at your institution?"

This is the conundrum that we find ourselves in. DD is in for a truckload of financial aid at most public institutions because she's at the 90th percentile (and then some) at most of those. Not so much for places like Rice, Reed, the Ivies, etc. where she looks like a more-or-less average admit. (Aside from the fact that she's 3-4y younger, I mean.) Take a look at the College Board's stats on places like Virginia and the University of Chicago-- how many of their admits are in the top 10% of their graduating classes?? At some elite institutions, it's 95% or more of the student body. Why would they offer merit aid? There are 100,000 of those students for the picking of those top 100 colleges and universities... every.single.year. It's a giant game of musical chairs, and because parents will do whatever it takes (second mortgages, loans, etc) they really don't need to offer merit aid.

Different institutions are perfectly within their rights to consider whatever assets they like as "fair game" when it comes to determining what your ability to pay actually is, as well. That's not whining or doomsday talk-- it's just reality in this particular era. Be prepared to pay until it hurts. A lot.

Honestly, our plan for paying is to bump our household income by 30-40% and just write the checks.

I also LOVE intparent's advice re: EC's and interests off the beaten track. This is why we haven't pushed DD into math competitions and chess, and have encouraged her to do things like 4-H. Elite college admission planning? Good luck with that, honestly... you're aiming your child at a moving target whose transformations are largely irrational and unpredictable.

Remember when everyone wanted their kids to take Japanese since that was what the future had in store for North America?? Now, it's the Chinese and everyone wants them learning Mandarin. You can't play catch up like that and hope to guess right as you peer 10-16 years into the future.

Encourage your kids to do what they love, to develop passion and determination and commitment to some things, and the rest? Realize that there's no real way to control it, and little way of even predicting it from more than 5-6 years away.

Schrödinger's cat walks into a bar. And doesn't.