I LOVE that he is so focused on his school work, test prep, and sports! That’s exactly what he SHOULD be focused on, at this point. Be thankful that this kid is self-motivated and focused on the right things at the right time. Let him be, other than pleasant, optimistic, exploratory dinner table conversations about urban vs rural, big vs small, possible majors. Forget the virtual tours for right now - he doesn’t have time for them right now. You can do those as soon as he’s done with this semester of school. We didn’t finalize my kid’s list until mid October, and I have no idea if he ever took a virtual tour. He can do this starting in June, and make his list over the summer.
Meanwhile, you are doing the right thing, too, by beginning the research process for him. From what you described regarding financial aid, I think that you should choose a mix of Ivies/tippy top schools with big endowments and known for giving good financial aid, and big state schools that will give merit money for him. Also some second/third tier schools that he’d be happy to go to, where he might get a free tuition, or even a free ride. If he has no idea of what he wants to study/become, then a small LAC is NOT the right place for him, because they cannot offer enough fields of study. Even if the small LAC is in a consortium, the travel time and the inferior position for class registration for popular classes make that no substitute for being in a large U that offers many majors. The WICHE WUE tuition program means paying no more than 150% of the in-state tuition - and if you’re looking to pay no more than 20K/yr, that is probably a no go for you, because his costs would be probably over 30K/yr under that program. Also, the program has limitations regarding popular majors, and whether such are available in your own state. BUT, there are a lot of flagship state U’s at which he would get a lot of merit money - although I don’t think that those are necessarily the right places for him, and some of them happen to be in WICHE, but he’ll get more in merit from them than he would have gotten through WICHE. My point is, I think he will definitely do better with merit from OOS WICHE schools than he would have with just WICHE, so I think this is WICHE is kind of irrelevant for him.
I’m going to posit something that my husband did with my son when my son was “stuck” on the essay. He asked him, “What do you love doing? What makes you really happy, brings you joy?” My son thought about it, and answered honestly, and came up with three things that brought him joy - and one of them was playing ping pong with his father and big brother! But there were other things, too - his love of playing music, and his budding interest in his intended field of study. And from that, he wove an essay. Open, optimistic, pleasant dinner table conversations about what makes the kid happy, what kind of life he wants, how he thinks he might make his mark in the world, could help to focus the college search.
Because of the advantage of applying from Montana, your son might be able to get into Harvard, which is very generous with financial aid. Similarly, he could consider all the Ivies, and non-Ivies at that same level, like Duke. Or he might be able to get a full tuition scholarship at a place like Tulane, which is trying and succeeding in attracting top students like your son with large merit scholarships. His reach list should include places like this - academic reaches, known for good fin aid, plus just below Ivies for which the merit scholarships are a reach. His safety list should include large southern and western flagship state Universities which would likely offer him a full tuition scholarship - although I really would not want to send my kid to certain parts of the country, so it’s got to be ONLY places he’d be happy to wind up at. I would also put into the consideration list premier flagship state U’s like U Mich, UNC, UVa, the leading California state U’s, possibly U Washington. I think that he would be in the running for their top standard OOS merit scholarships at each flagship state U - you can look on their websites at the merit aid, and see their list - scholarships like the President’s or Chancellor’s or whatever they call it - but he’s likely to get that top level of OOS scholarship.
If you have the time to do it, start doing the research for him, and come up with a very large, possible list. Just running through the US News lists can help give you ideas. Then, in June, when he’s finished compiling his stellar record, you can sit down together and begin narrowing it down.
BTW, he would not qualify for an app fee waiver, would he? Applying to twenty schools would cost about $1700! But from what you describe, it sounds as if he would not qualify for this.