I can certainly sympathize. I used to be a baker and there was no way I could afford college on a baker's salary. I ended up switching careers and became a professional financial aid administrator because I had to learn so much about financial aid to make sure my daughter could go to college that I figured I might as well get paid for it!. There is no simple answer to your question. Colleges all have their own financial aid packaging policies that reflect their own resources and priorities. There are two types of aid: need based and merit based, and determining eligibility for each of them is usually different. Most colleges use the FAFSA (and sometimes the CSS Profile) as the basis for determining financial aid. The FAFSA does take into consideration your family's income, the number in the family and the number who will be in college. It also includes other factors, such as where you live, the taxes you pay, the age of the parents, whether there are one wage earner or two, your assets, whether you paid or received child support, etc. It also has asset and income protection allowances built into the formula. All that information is used to calculate the EFC: Expected Family Contribution. Despite its name, this is NOT what you are expected to pay the school. It is the amount you would need to contribute toward the student's over all costs (not just tuition and fees) before you would be eligible for need-based aid, like the Pell grant and many state grants. The lower the EFC, the higher the eligibility for grant aid. Having 4 in college at the same time is a good thing, because the FAFSA formula will split the EFC between the number of children who will be in college. So, each of your 4 kids will have an EFC that is just 1/4 of what it would be if you had just one student attending college. Merit based aid is just that-- grants and scholarships from the school's own resources that are awarded as recognition for outstanding performance. Schools award this type of aid to attract superior students. Grades are usually a big part of that, but other factors can influence it as well. For example, donors often give money to the college for specific purposes, such as to support outstanding students in a particular major, or students who come from a particular place. Merit aid can also be awarded for outstanding performance in things other than classwork, such as athletic or artistic ability, or a strong resume of community service. Another thing to think about when selecting a school is that colleges want to attract students that help them reach certain goals. All colleges want a diverse student body, so if you offer the college something they have a hard time getting, they're much more likely to offer you a lot of aid. For example, if you're a minority student, consider a college in a rural, mostly white, place like Vermont that might not have an easy time attracting a lot of minority applicants. Don't pick a school in a major city where minority students are a dime a dozen. Or, look for a college that isn't famous for what you want to study. For example, if you want to be a doctor, then you probably won't get much aid from Johns Hopkins because they're famous for their medical program and have no trouble attracting outstanding medical applicants. But they still have to fill spots in other, less popular majors. So, if you're planning to be an art major, you might get more aid if you apply there because they might be having a hard time attracting good art students. You should apply to several schools and compare the bottom line---the amount you will have to pay after the financial aid is applied to the bill. A school that offers you a huge scholarship isn't always the best buy if their price tag is also huge. Sometimes a school with a modest financial aid package is actually a better choice because they cost much less to begin with. But by the same token, the school with the lowest tuition isn't necessarily the least expensive. A private school with higher tuition might end up being the better buy if they've given you a generous financial aid package to offset it. The biggest factor in affording college isn't so much how much financial aid you get--it's picking the right college. Be realistic with what you can afford. Students and their parents can easily get caught up in the "dream college" merry go round. Try to keep in mind that you're buying an education not planning a vacation. An degree in English from a State U is pretty much the same as one from a fancy private school. You should only pay more if there is more educational value, not more social cache or a better sports team. It's only going to last for 4 years. Better to be a little unhappy for 4 years, than miserable for the rest of your life because you went into huge debt for things like a fancier dorm, or a cool location. The best way to combat this is through hard numbers. Be upfront with your kids about what you can afford, and get them involved in setting up some spread sheets to research what the actual costs are and where they fit in your budget. ("If I attend this one, it will cost this much, and I will have loan payments of this much. If I attend this other one, it will cost this much and I won't have loan payments at all.....). Most kids are clueless about this, but once they see it in black and white, they're surprisingly practical and may be more willing that you are to budget carefully. Finally, think in terms of the total cost over 4 (or 5) years, not just what it costs for 1 year. A lot of colleges offer a large amount of aid for that first year because they know that parents are only focused on how they're going to pay the bill in front of them. But later on, you get less aid because they know that once the student is established they're not going to want to transfer out and you'll find a way (usually a loan) to pay the bill. Finally, keep in mind that you are closer to your retirement than you think. As much as you want to help your kids, the reality is that you won't be able to repay large amounts of debt when you're no longer working, and you should be putting away as much as you can right now. Your children will have the rest of their lives to pay off any debt, so as much as possible, resist the temptation to just sign up for a Parent PLUS loan and pay for it all because you don't want them to start out in debt. Better they should be aware that they're taking on debt and make more realistic choices than you should live in poverty in your old age because you didn't want to squash their dreams. There are a lot of books on the subject of financial aid, scholarship hunting and college selection, and it really pays to read up on it. A couple of good ones to start with are "How to Pay for College Without Sacrificing Your Retirement " by Tim Higgins and "How to Go to College Almost for Free" by Ben Kaplan. Oh--and whatever your college offers you, appeal it ( particularly if you're going to be in one of their less popular majors). Most will at least throw you a bone to keep you happy, and it might be more than you expect. Every little bit helps, particularly when you multiply it by 4! Good luck!