>>he doesn't care where he goes
Nonetheless, he needs to be the one to make the choice, and that's going to be easier if he has lots of information. Visit, visit, visit. He will get a lot of info from listening to the presentations, and going on the student-led tour. You can ask questions, and he'll be there to hear the answers (and maybe ask some of his own). Don't forget to ask the student tour leader (and any other students you interface with) lots of questions about their experiences at the school, where else they applied, how they decided, what they like about their decision, and so on. We visited each likely school at least once and in one case (a reach school) three or four times for various events. Each time both parents and student(s) learned more from the presentations, and gleaned more from just being there. Contrast that with several students I know who didn't visit, or didn't really visit/question/research enough to understand what their major was all about at the school, what classes they would be taking while there, what extracurriculars would be available, what there was to do in the area besides classes, what different dorms would be like, what the campus would be like (large suburban/rural vs. unconnected buildings in a big city), and so on. They ended up changing schools & majors after one semester. Not a disaster, but not ideal either.
I'm glad to hear he's applying to summer programs. My kids who did summer on-campus programs (residential programs, but not at the schools they ultimately attended) had a good of what they did and didn't want - they had a basic foundation of "what college is like" to work with before beginning their search.
>>I'm making the list based on finances, and he'll choose from whatever options are reasonable.
He is lucky to have a mom who will whittle down the options for him. I would also consider making a list based on his desired major. Different schools might have programs aimed at different aspects of the major, leading to different kinds of jobs. If you can look at the classes required for the major at each school, that may help him to get a feel for what each school may be like to attend, and what doors it may open for him down the line. Another way to get a sense of this is to go to an Open House day where the department he's interested in will have a presentation.
>>>We have a high EFC so we are looking to get merit scholarships.
There's a balance to consider here. VERY generally speaking, the better (more competitive) the school, the harder it will be to get merit money, meaning that there's a chance that the schools that give him the most money may also be schools where he will be among the highest achievers (meaning he may not be as challenged as he could be). That's a major generalization - different schools have different amounts of money to give, different departments within a school may have students with higher or lower average stats, and so on. But what I'm trying to say is don't overlook where he will fit in the "pack"; it may come down to a choice of spending more money to get a more challenging education; do your research and be prepared to make trade-offs.
1. good community college w/2 year transfer agreements to great schools
2. very good university, affordable if he commutes, offers competitive tuition scholarship that would allow him to live on campus (ds' stats are right in the middle for this school)
I like that you have two safeties. Option 1 is always a good fallback. Option two sounds like it may work as a commuter school. I would do some research to see if commuting is permitted and how many of the students do so, etc., to be sure commuting is going to be a good experience.
1. good state university w/automatic aid that should make it affordable, also offers competitive full tuition plus 2 yrs R&B scholarship (ds' stats in top 10%), we have 2 family members who have gone here and had good experiences
Sounds good. Visit, visit, visit.
1. small liberal arts school that offers competitive full ride (tuition, room & board, study abroad), otherwise unaffordable (ds' stats in top 5%)
2. big state university where ds could get some automatic aid, but would need to win a competitive departmental scholarship to make it affordable (ds' stats in top 10%)
3. same as #2 (stats in top 25%)
4. same as #2, but OOS w/tuition waiver (stats in top 10%)
5. same as # 3 (stats in top 25%)
That's a lot of reaches. Reaches are good to have, but I'd like to see maybe two more matches in the mix. Sometimes as you look closer, one or two end up being not ideal for one reason or another (or even a hard no), and it's nice to have good choices come May. I don't think you need any more safeties - I'd focus on finding matches and VISITING.