In-State College Is Not Always Cheaper

When I was in high school growing up in Vienna, VA, my parents told me “Tim, you can go to any school that you want……but it has to be in Virginia.”

So, I did! The oldest of four, I proudly attended the University of Virginia, hoping to pave the way for my younger siblings. My younger sister and stepbrother naturally went to Virginia Tech, staying in-state and securing the sibling rivalry. The youngest, my stepsister, was a real rebel—she went out-of-state to Georgia Tech.

Want to guess who paid the least amount for college among the four of us?

Yep. The youngest was awarded a 100% full-ride merit scholarship, even though she did not qualify for any need-based financial aid.

She also got accepted to Stanford, Brown, NYU, UVA, and a number of other great schools, but none of them offered her a dime of aid.

Stanford University

Why? Because they didn’t have to! When she said “no” to Stanford, there was another very bright student behind her that readily paid the full $75,000 per year, or about $300,000 over four years, to get that prestigious Cardinal diploma.

On the other hand, Georgia Tech knew that my stepsister would not have attended there unless heavily incentivized to do so.

She ended up graduating near the top of her class with an engineering degree and was hired right out of college to work for Deloitte. This was probably the same job she would’ve been offered if she graduated from Stanford or UVA.

So, what is really better? Graduating Stanford with $300,000 of debt, UVA with about $140,000 in loans, or GA Tech with $0 debt?

Of course, not every student has the grades and test scores to get this type of generous, merit-based offer, but many students can still obtain partial scholarships.

Good Student? Several Out-of-State Schools Will Give You Large Scholarships

Most parents do not realize that out-of-state schools, primarily toward the middle of the country, are willing to spend significant money from their endowments to attract smart students from the East and West coasts. Schools like the University of Alabama get a ton of applicants from Alabama and the surrounding states but want greater diversity among the student population. They want studious kids from CA, NY, VA, MA, etc. to improve their average test scores and academic culture.

These big state schools often have money from successful sports programs and use it to attract the best and brightest, providing generous merit aid offers. As an example, a student with a 30-31 ACT or 1360-1410 SAT score, and at least a 3.5 GPA, will qualify to be a UA Scholar at the University of Alabama and will receive $80,000 over four years ($20,000 per year).

Right now, out-of-state tuition at Bama costs $30,250, so you would only have to pay $10,250 per year for tuition. You would also need to cover room and board which runs $13,636. There are other miscellaneous costs as well, but if your student has good ACT or SAT scores and above a 3.5 GPA, Alabama could certainly be less expensive than an in-state school.

In-State College May Not Be as Cheap as You Think

There is a classic supply and demand issue here. Schools in states like Virginia and California are getting flooded with applications. For example, Virginia Tech is adding significantly more students this year to keep up with constantly increasing demand. As a result, schools in states like VA and CA, who have excellent university systems, do not have to offer a dime of merit scholarships to attract the best and brightest— families will happily pay the full in-state price.

What parents may not realize is that the full in-state price for college has dramatically increased for some schools. Here in Virginia, a four-year degree at William and Mary will run about $160,000 ($40,000 x 4 years). This is in-state!  My alma mater UVA comes in at $32,360 per year right now, so it would cost about $132,000 over four years.

The point is, if you have a smart student, do not think in-state is necessarily the best option from a financial perspective.

How to Determine If You Should Apply to Out-Of-State Schools

Here is a good rule of thumb: if your kid has over a 30 ACT and/or 1300 SAT and above a 3.5 GPA, there is a good chance he or she can qualify for merit scholarships, even if your family has high income or assets. These merit scholarships are often listed right on the college website or you can contact the admissions offices to find out.

It is more important than ever to consider out of state schools, contrary to much common thought. In my opinion, it is not just about going to the highest-ranked school you get accepted to; it is about finding the best overall deal given how expensive undergrad has become.

Here is a list of schools that offer fairly generous financial aid packages to out of state students. Check out their respective websites to see the details:

University of Alabama
Mississippi State
Ole Miss
University of Vermont
University of Arkansas
University of Oklahoma
University of Missouri
Louisiana State University
Colorado School of Mines
Michigan Technological University


Thank you for reading this and please share this important information with other parents in your close circle!


Tim McFillin


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