Presidet/Partner, Global College Search Associates, LLC
Cost is everything these days, and the fact is there are many ways to achieve your dreams, and not all of them involve traditional, expensive colleges.
The first advice students and parents should take is to stop thinking about the glamorous Ivies. They don't want you, so don't waste your hopes and money on the app fees. They want your application so they can appear more selective to the rankings publications. It may sound cool to your friends and classmates to say you are applying to an Ivy, but the fact is the Ivies know who they are accepting and it's probably not you.
But you don't need them, because there are many institutions out there that will provide you with what you need, which is to achieve a degree that will prove to employers (investors? your community? grad schools? your future children?) throughout your life that you can think, write, analyze, calculate, and be an ethical, productive member of society.
That said, be aware of the games institutions play with you and your emotions. College is big business, and it is you they are manipulating toward their own goals. That admissions counselor who is telling you yes to everything you ask? They have recruitment goals; to their college administration, you represent application numbers and tuition and room and board dollars; that is who counselors answer to, and they are protecting their jobs by telling you what you want to hear (and they've done enough research on you and your generation to know exactly what buzz words you will appreciate.) Take responsibility for your college choices, and -- like any smart consumer -- do some digging to discover if their "walk" reflects their "talk." And if you need help doing that, find someone to talk to who knows admissions from the inside out.
So go ahead and dream, but get realistic about how you will achieve your dreams. You should consider four types of college pathways (and honestly, any number of college application choices should be able to provide you with the same attributes I mention below):
1) Your dream school that offers your dream major -- any country, any cost
2) A college that meets realistic expectations about costs and loan repayment over time (and that means possibly until well after you have your own children and are saving for their college and your retirement at the same time -- not to mention potential lack of employment at various times.)
3) One with a solid liberal arts core. The most important and employment-transferable education over time is a liberal arts education. The truth is you will not succeed in any major or profession unless you know how to think critically and creatively, write well, and know how to work with figures. So if your high school academic record is not strong (and even if it is), the third type of college you should apply to is one that will provide you with strong academic support in core credits that will be transferable. Ideally, these credits should be be in the form of an Associate's degree, because should you decide to begin your undergraduate studies at a cost-sensitive institution, many colleges will transfer-in the Associate's degree as whole, which can reduce the cost of your education overall. This type of study can be taken at a traditional four-year college or your local community college. The amount of money you save by living at home (no matter how badly you want to get away) and attending two years of community college can save you and your parents from decades of unmanageable debt, not to mention the out of pocket costs of travel associated with attending a non-local college. The choice of a local college or community college shows financial intelligence and emotional maturity, so don't be a snob. All employers out there will be seeing is where you got your degree from, not where you completed your first one or two years.
4) Your public state university; many students look down upon their state universities, but the fact is that most of these institutions offer an incredible education in many, many areas of study. Again, don't be a snob.
In short, apply to cost-sensitive colleges that will provide you with a solid liberal arts core. Save your big money for grad school and a specialization after you've been working for a few years. A Master's degree is the bottom line now for long-term professional employment.