Are you going to go where the most scholarship money is or your dream school? Any advise on which option to choose? Answered
HS senior and prospective 2021 student. Asking a hypothetical situation, for example full ride but not very prestigious vs prestigious and very selective but with no scholarship offered. Which one do you choose, and why?
Honestly, I would choose neither because this binary option is not how the real college admissions process works.
There are over 4300 institutions of higher learning in the US and if you are someone that is an excellent student you only need to focus on the top 100.
After researching the Top 100, and visiting over 25 colleges in person, I honestly can tell you that you can receive a most excellent education at any of these schools because they all have great resources, teachers, and facilities. Unless you currently attend Andover or Exeter, all these institutions will be many steps up from your high school in terms of depth and breadth.
Disproportionately to the bottom 75, the Top 25 have the most endowments and counter-intuitively offer no merit scholarships. The point is that if you are a 99% percentile achiever applying to a school of 99% achievers, well everyone is smart so there is no metric that justifies giving someone merit aid. Nevertheless, these Top 25 schools have the best financial aid plans in the US. I've run the numbers for every single private and public Top 25 school and the private institutions are 2 to 3 times more generous about aid than State college especially if you are applying out of state. And most of them employ sliding scales so even if your family income is $200,000+, you will still qualify for aid at say a Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia. But you will get close to nothing at say UMich, UT, or William&Mary. (in my case I avoided applying to UCLA/UCBerkeley, UofWash etc because they would be many times more costly that applying to Ivy League schools)
After looking into all the Merit Scholarship opportunities at say a lower 75 school say a U of Miami, Syracuse, Washington & Lee, Trinity College, William & Mary, UVA, etc, what was clear to me is that getting one of those is probably harder (less than 5%) than applying directly to a Top25 and getting "Aid" based on family income. or need. It's sort of the same strange dilemma of applying to merit scholarships like the Coca Cola Scholarship where 1.3% get awarded something, yet the process is just as long and tedious as a college application. Sometimes is better to look for the low-hanging fruit rather than follow the tens of thousands of people that follow the hype.
What I learned through my own journey is that the best combination of schools to apply to offer a.) need-blind admissions and b.) meet 100% of financial aid based on your family income. That means that they do not know about your personal or family income or wealth prior to admitting you and if you are admitted will make sure your bill will be 100% covered either by non-repayable grants from the school, Fed. govt, State govt, supplemental grants, or low-interest institution based loans, or privately sourced loans. If your college interest includes schools that are not need-blind buy need-aware or need-sensitive, then you are going to be pre-judged on your ability to pay. If your list of colleges does not meet 100% of your financial aid need, then you are going to have to use your personal connections like relatives, friends, private loans, etc to make up the difference.
The only caveat I could think of that is an exception to the rule where you would actually consider applying to UVA various scholarships or William & Mary's 1693 Full Ride scholarship is if your parents want to keep you close to home in the South and/or they are incredibly wealthy (say you are a trust fund baby) and they do not want to contribute to your college education. In that case, I can see how they wouldn't want you to apply to the Ivy league because millionaires don't get much of a break.
In conclusion, I would only apply to the Best colleges that most likely are also need-blind and offer 100% of financial need met.
(if you are at all skeptical, go to the college board's Big Future and run all the NPC calculations on their free tools section. That's what I did, I had 75 schools at the beginning and ran all the numbers and then eliminated all the state schools after they were twice or more expensive).