This article was updated on May 4, 2021. It was originally published on July 15, 2016.
Many students now attend public universities to reduce the cost of higher education. Unfortunately, students often face a huge premium if they want to attend a public university that is not in their state of residence. This can be very problematic if good public university options are limited within their own state.
The good news is there are ways around the high premiums of going out of state. Before we get into this though, let’s take a look at the basic qualifications for in-state tuition.
Basic In-State Tuition Requirements
In general, trying to establish residency for in-state tuition is not worth the hassle. In the past, elaborate rules for in-state tuition qualification were established to safeguard taxpayer-subsidized public universities. These domicile rules vary by state, but here are a few general guidelines:
- Twelve months: Generally, students must live in the state for a minimum of 12 months, prior to enrolling, in order to gain residency status.
- Proof of residency: Students need to provide voter registration, car registration, and conversion of their driver’s license as proof that they lived in the state at least 12 months prior to enrolling in school.
- Relocation purpose: Most states won’t grant residency if the student’s purpose for moving was primarily educational. Students must usually demonstrate financial independence in the state for at least 12 months prior to enrolling in school. Even so, some schools still may not recognize the student as an independent resident.
- Dependency: If parents claim the student as a dependent on their taxes, the student is considered a resident of the state in which the parents hold residency. If the parents move to a different state, the student’s residency may not change. If the parents are divorced and live in different states, the student may qualify for residency in both states, depending on where the financial support comes from
Again, these are basic guidelines. Make sure to go on the individual college’s website to verify its residency requirements.
A notable exception to residency rules: If one or both parents are in the military, many schools will offer a tuition waiver that allows the student to attend at in-state rates.
But what if you are not a resident? What are some ways to offset the high costs of out-of-state higher education?
Strategy #1: Find Schools with Low Out-Of-State Sticker Prices
While many popular public universities still do slap out-of-state students with a large tuition premium, many public colleges in less populated areas (especially in the middle of the country) are eager for students and are willing to cut good deals.
At some of these colleges, the total annual cost of attendance is less than $35,000 per year for non-residents. Ok, yes, that’s still a lot of money. But consider this: schools like The University of Virginia and The University of Michigan charge upwards of $30,000 just for in-state residents; for out-of-state students, the cost of attendance exceeds $65,000. This means it can be cheaper in some cases for students to attend public schools out of state. Mind you, this is without considering any forms of financial aid.
Here’s a short and definitely not exhaustive list of well-known colleges with lower sticker prices for out-of-state residents.
All the schools listed have a graduation rate over 50%.
Remember, these are “sticker prices.” They are generic estimates of what you will pay all in (including tuition, fees, room, board, books/supplies, travel, and personal expenses) without taking financial aid into account.
If you are applying to public out-of-state schools, financial aid will generally come in the form of non-resident merit scholarships/tuition discounts awarded by the school itself.
Strategy #2: Look for Schools That Offer In-State Rates to Good Students
Some big state schools are so eager to attract talented out-of-state students that they offer non-resident students merit scholarships and tuition waivers which may lower tuition to in-state rates. Oftentimes, school applicants are automatically awarded these merit scholarships based on their academic performance.
Examples: One of the best examples of these schools is The University of Alabama. An incoming freshman can qualify to be a UA Scholar if he or she had a 3.5 GPA in high school and scored a 30-31 on the ACT or 1360-1410 on the SAT. The University of Alabama will reward these students with $20,000 annually to offset out-of-state costs.
Besides general merit scholarships, some schools offer additional propositions. Texas A&M University will waive non-resident tuition if your child receives a competitive scholarship from them (college/departmental scholarship) of at least $4,000.
Important Tip: When doing your search for affordable out-of-state schools, you should know this: competitive flagship state schools like UVA, UCLA, UNC, or the University of Michigan are only going to give merit aid to the best of the best students. They don’t need to throw money at the “above-average” students whose parents are already willing and able to pay for the prestige. These schools tend to save the merit scholarships for the select few and focus on helping students who demonstrate financial need.
Merit Aid for Students Who Are Not ‘Excellent’
Your child doesn’t have to be brilliant to receive merit aid from certain schools. Although this money may not bring down the cost to in-state rates, it will help make these schools much more affordable, and may even be cheaper than in-state schools.
The University of New Mexico offers the Amigo Scholarship, valued at about $15,500 a year if an out-of-state student achieves an ACT score of 23 and a 3.5 GPA OR a 26 ACT and 3.0 GPA. If you live in certain states nearby, you can qualify for in-state tuition with only a 3.0 GPA and a 20 ACT/1030 SAT through a regional exchange agreement, which we will further discuss in strategy #4.
Oklahoma State University will give non-residents $10,000 per year if they score just a 24 on the ACT or 1190 on the SAT and have a 3.0 GPA.
At the University of Arkansas, the New Arkansan award waives 70 percent off out-of-state tuition for first-year students from neighboring states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma) who obtain at least a 3.2 GPA and an ACT score of 24/1090 SAT (test scores waived for this scholarship through 2022 due to Covid).
Some schools waive out-of-state fees altogether for students who meet minimal qualifications, such as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which awards out-of-state tuition waivers to students with ACT scores of 20 or SAT scores of at least 1030, and GPAs of at least 2.5. UL Lafayette also offers more automatic scholarships based on academics that one can stack on top of this tuition waiver!
What if your child doesn’t hit these standards? Academic performance is not the only metric colleges use to award scholarship money. Certain colleges will award scholarships for unique talents, leadership, and service. These scholarships, however, usually require an application and essay(s).
Of course, there are plenty of private scholarships out there that don’t involve academic performance as well, but that’s for a different post.
Most importantly, consider whether going to an out-of-state school actually makes sense given your financial situation and your student’s academic/extracurricular record. For example, families with a low Expected Family Contribution may be better off focusing on in-state schools and private colleges that meet most or all of the family’s need. Don’t be put off by the exorbitant sticker prices of private colleges; they are more affordable than you think.
Find the right financial fit: Calculate your EFC now!
The Bottom Line: Many public universities are now offering good deals for out-of-state students to come to their college; deals that often require little additional effort on the student’s part. Please visit the “out-of-state” or “non-resident” scholarship web pages of colleges your child is interested in—you will find more details there.
Strategy #3: Find Legacy Scholarships
Many schools offer discounted rates if you are a legacy student. At many of these schools, the applicant automatically qualifies if they demonstrate or maintain a certain GPA/test score in addition to having a parent or grandparent who graduated from that school.
Here are a few:
- The University of Missouri offers the Black & Gold Scholarship which grants a full waiver of non-resident tuition if the incoming student has a composite ACT score of 27 or higher (or SAT of 1260+) and a biological, adoptive, or step-parent who graduated from the University. A legacy student can also qualify for a half-waiver of non-resident tuition if they have an ACT score of 25-26 or SAT of 1200-1250.
- Kansas State has the Heritage Scholarship which pays out $12,000 a year. Students can qualify as long as one parent or grandparent graduated from there, and the student graduates with a minimum 3.0 GPA.
- Boise State has the Alumni Legacy Scholarship that covers the cost of in-state tuition and fees. The applicant must have a parent or grandparent who graduated AND is a member of the alumni association. Incoming student’s GPA must be at least 3.5 with an ACT composite 24 or SAT 1090.
- UL Lafayette waives the out-of-state fee for all incoming legacy students.
Qualifications and requirements often change for these scholarships, so be sure to double-check each year. It’s especially important to do your research right now with so many schools going test-optional and adjusting their merit scholarships accordingly.
Strategy #4: Utilize Regional Exchange Programs and State Reciprocity Agreements
Several regional agreements offer non-residents discounted tuition rates at out-of-state schools. There can be certain caveats though, such as minimum GPA or test scores, and/or you must be pursuing an eligible degree.
Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE)
The Western Undergraduate Exchange is available to students who reside in the following states and territories:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
The Western Undergraduate Exchange allows students residing in these states to attend a college/university in the member states and only pay up to 150 percent of the in-state tuition rate.
There are strings attached of course.
Requirements: Whether you qualify for the tuition discount varies by school and the degree/program you wish to pursue. Individual schools may also have GPA and test score minimums to qualify.
Midwest Student Exchange (MSEP)
Through the MSEP, public institutions agree to charge students no more than 150% of the in-state resident tuition rate for specific programs.
- North Dakota
Requirements: Similar to the other exchange programs, not every college participates, and each college sets its own admission guidelines regarding academic performance and what specific degrees would merit the discount.
New England Regional Student Program (RSP)
According to their website, a full-time RSP student received an average tuition break of $8,265 in 2020-2021.
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
Requirements: Must be in an approved program or area of study; many colleges only allow eligibility if the student’s degree is not offered in their home state. There are over 1,200 eligible graduate and undergraduate degree programs at the 82 participating schools.
Academic Common Market
The Academic Common Market offers in-state rates to those students who want to pursue a degree that is not offered in their home state. It covers most of the South and Mid-Atlantic.
- Florida (only at the graduate level)
- South Carolina
- Texas (only at the graduate level)
- West Virginia
Requirements: The degree you want to pursue must NOT be available in your home state. Remember, only select colleges in the states listed participate, and those that do may set their own GPA and test score requirements.
You may have wondered if you could pick one of the eligible degrees and then just switch majors later on. Nope, if you switch you will be charged full out-of-state tuition. It is crucial to understand that you are locked into the specific program of study if you decide to use this tuition discount.
State Reciprocity Agreements
Several states have reciprocity agreements that go beyond the regional programs mentioned above and offer in-state rates. These agreements usually have less stringent qualifications. Here are the major ones: Missouri-Kansas, Wisconsin-Minnesota, New Mexico-Colorado, and Ohio-West Virginia.
Some schools will also waive out-of-state tuition for people who live in border counties, even if no reciprocity agreement exists. They may also waive non-resident tuition for specific border states for students who meet a certain academic benchmark.
DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program
Since Washington D.C. residents are limited in their public university options, DCTAG awards a $10,000 grant to help cover the cost of out-of-state schools. You can read more about it here.
Bonus Strategy: Attend a Federal Service Academy
Joining the service may be the last thing your student wants to do; it may also be something they have never thought about. Here are the five federal service academies:
- The U.S. Naval Academy
- The U.S. Military Academy at West Point
- The U.S. Air Force Academy
- The U.S. Coast Guard Academy
- The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
The federal service academies provide excellent academics, life skills, and a guaranteed job without charging tuition, room, or board.
As in life, things are never so simple. In return, you will probably have to serve at least five years in the military. These schools are also exceptionally competitive, have more complicated application processes than your average college, and are certainly not for everyone. In fact, only The Coast Guard Academy does not require a congressional nomination to attend.
Guess that’s the price to pay for a free college that guarantees you a job.
As discussed, these are the major ways to minimize out-of-state costs:
- Find colleges that already have low sticker prices for non-residents.
- Find colleges that want you and have a history of bringing out-of-state costs closer to resident tuition.
- Figure out if you qualify for legacy scholarships – where did your parents/grandparents go?
- Utilize regional exchange programs and state tuition reciprocity agreements.
- Attend a federal service academy.
Ultimately, you and your child need to do your research. Maybe there’s a school you initially ruled out because you thought it was too expensive. Pore over the scholarships and financial aid pages for each college you’re interested in.
Investigate all these options on each school’s website and/or call the school to get a better explanation. Leniency on cost will vary with each institution – even if there’s no state reciprocity program, some colleges will be more lenient if you live close to the border, have parent alumni, are a good student, or want to blaze your own path of study.
Never assume that you can’t negotiate a deal for yourself at any college. If you don’t try, you surely won’t succeed.
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