Is this system nuts, or what? College has gotten insanely expensive, and the tuition aid formulas have gotten insanely complicated. But if you don’t figure them out you will be crushed.

Poor, brilliant students get a free ride at Harvard or Princeton. Rich families don’t care about costs. Everyone else–and that would be about 90% of America–has a problem.

The fanciest colleges cost $55,000 a year. Suppose you have three youngsters who will be attending a decade from now. If prices climb as they have over the past decade, you’ll spend $990,000. This has to come out of your take-home pay. So go ask your boss for a $1.5 million bonus.

If that isn’t feasible, learn how to work the system. Below, we outline a dozen techniques that families use to make bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees more affordable.

Some families find a way to get a price break that isn’t contingent on income. Some outsmart the aid formulas, which, like the tax code, are full of traps for the unwary and rich in opportunities for the well-informed. Did you know that if your child is applying to certain elite schools, including Dartmouth and Duke, you should use extra cash to pay down your mortgage?

1. Merit

Four years ago Joseph Riley, a Tennessee high school senior, was accepted at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The son of a doctor, he didn’t qualify for need-based aid. But he was determined to cover his education costs on his own, he says, as his father and grandfather had done. So he turned down the Ivies and took an all-expenses scholarship at the University of Virginia. He’s now a college senior studying Mandarin and politics.

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