Only $5,500 - 7,500 is available via the Federal Direct Student Loan Program, beyond that a cosigner is required. In most cases parents are taking on the majority of college debt.
While starting salaries for graduates of "elite" schools tend to be higher, you have to take into account the long term effects of delaying savings in order to pay off student debt. It's not a no-brainer.
Merit based has nothing to do with your income or assets. Colleges will expect most families to contribute around 20% of their income each year. If that number is less than the cost of the school and/or you have more than one child in college you will be eligible for financial aid.
Many of the most selective colleges that attract straight A students do not offer merit scholarships, and even those, rarely offer the elusive “full ride” scholarship. 50% of tuition (not room and board) is more common, if you are looking at the right schools. Scholarships will help, but you should be prepared with other sources of funding.