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Is there any reasonable way of telling in advance what kind of money Northwestern is likely to expect me to come up with as "family contribution" before you're well into the decision process?

You will definitely know what the expected family contribution is before you have to choose a college.

As for knowing before you even apply? Not that I know of. Is the application process so onerous that you want to avoid it?

Fill out the FAFSA. It can't hurt, might help. And it truly is not that difficult unless it has changed a lot in the past 10 years.
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