In my first post I mentioned applying to seven schools, but I didn't really explain why. Sure one of the reasons is to make sure you get in somewhere, but the other reason is because of the cost of school. If you have multiple schools that you'd be happy to attend, then you can make your choice based on the cost of schools. Your reach schools might end up costing less than your safety schools.
Do not assume that you need to be rich to go to a private school, and that the rest of us must go to state universities. Schools offer financial aid, and the private colleges tend to have endowments that they use to make attending affordable. Aid packages can include scholarships (awarded based on some criteria), grants (free money), loans, and work study jobs. M and I just returned from a tour that included of seven of the top 50 "best liberal arts colleges in the US" according to US News and World Reports (Swarthmore #3, Haverford #9, Bryn Mawr #26, Oberlin #26, Kenyon #32, Lafayette #39, Denison #49) - and two of the top 25 "best universities in the US" according to http://www.shanghairanking.com/ (Princeton #6, Washington U. #23)- and 1) they all said that they meet all of a student's need for four years, 2) the top schools said they admit students without knowing if the student needs aid (need blind) and 3) the many of the top schools don't make loans part of the package.
There is a form that needs to be filled out annually to apply for financial aid, the FAFSA. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid - and it is located at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/. Using the FAFSA information regarding a family's financial situation, the schools are able to determine how much a family can afford to pay for tuition. This is what you are asked to pay. The rest of the expenses - tuition, books, fees, transportation, room and board, etc. are covered in your financial aid package. So if at school one the total cost might be $60,000 per year; and school 2 might be $20,000. But based on your FAFSA, the schools figure that your family can afford $10,000 per year - so to you the schools cost the same $10,000. Many schools have financial aid calculators where you can run your actual numbers and get an idea of what a school will consider your need to be.
I heard this sort of thing before, so that is why I felt that touring these expensive schools was not a waste of time. But Princeton actually put a financial aid chart on their materials, along the lines of "Students from families earning less than $40,000 annually - 100% who applied for aid, received aid. And the average award was 100% of the cost (including expenses) of school. Student from families earning between $40K and $60K - 100% who applied for aid received aid and the average award covered 100% of tuition and 80% of expenses..." In our bracket we could expect to pay 2 or 3 thousand more than we are paying for M's high school tuition. No loans. This is cheaper than the in-state tuition and room and board at any of the UW system schools.
Need Blind vs. Need Aware Admissions
Like I mentioned, the top schools we looked at (Princeton, Haverford, Swarthmore) are need blind when it comes to admissions. This means that your ability to pay has no influence on their decision to admit you/ your student. Other schools like Lafayette might take a wealthier student over a less wealthy one ("need aware") so that they don't drain their endowments - but they said that this only ends up effecting "borderline students."
Money on Campus
Good students should not be discouraged to apply to good schools. They are not easy to get into - Princeton accepted just less than 8% of applicants last year - but if you can get in, they have the resources to support your education, and I'm not talking only tuition, room and board... but also research jobs, internship grants (where they pay for you to take an unpaid internship), travel stipends... Another money matter; the cost of life on campus. Some of these schools don't want money to be a barrier for students, so everything on campus - concerts, sporting events, plays, etc. are free with a student id. Swarthmore allows you to apply for funds to finance your own campus event - as long as everyone on campus is invited. They told the story of one student who threw herself a birthday party every year with these small grants.
So don't worry about the money, at least not until you're deciding which offer to accept.