Last Updated: Jul 8, 2014
There are lots of great reasons to attend a public university instead of a private institution. Many public universities have large and diverse student bodies that are brimming over with school spirit. They often have sprawling campuses with desirable amenities like student health centers, plentiful dining options, and Olympic-size swimming pools. And they attract some of the finest professors in the country, which translates into rigorous course work and excellent networking opportunities. But for many students, the biggest draw of public universities is the tuition.
While it’s true that tuition at public universities is generally lower than at private colleges, out-of-state students almost always pay a higher rate than in-state students. That may seem unfair, but out-of-state students pay more because state schools are funded in part by the tax dollars of residents of that state—so students from outside of the state aren’t entitled to the same low tuition rates that state residents enjoy.
In-state tuition versus out-of-state tuition
Unfortunately, out-of-state tuition isn’t just a little higher than in-state tuition. Sometimes it’s a lot higher. For example, at the University of Texas at Austin, tuition for the upcoming academic year is $9,788 for state residents and $34,722 for out-of-state students. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, tuition is $12,192 for state residents and $34,213 for out-of-state students.
The difference between those numbers may look formidable, but if you have your heart set on a public school in another state, the (albeit frightening) prospect of paying two, three, or even four times as much as state residents shouldn’t deter you from pursuing your dreams. There are several options that can help you save on tuition.
State residency requirements
In order to qualify for in-state tuition, you must prove that you are a resident of a given state. Residency requirements vary from state to state as well as from college to college, but in general, you must prove that you have been a resident for at least 12 months and that you intend to remain a permanent resident of the state for the foreseeable future. You’ll need to provide items such as a state driver’s license, employment records, a local bank account, or your car or voter registration (items that can serve as proof of residency vary by state).
It may be difficult, if not impossible, to establish residency before your freshman year, so unless you take a gap year and live and work in the state where you plan to attend college (and even that can be a long shot), you’ll likely end up paying out-of-state tuition for at least your first year. But if you secure in-state tuition as soon as possible thereafter, you’ll still end up paying far less over the course of four years than you would at a private college.
Out-of-state tuition waivers
Some states in various regions of the country have joined forces to offer reduced tuition to students who live within a specified area. These arrangements are often referred to as “academic common markets,” “tuition exchange programs,” or “reciprocity agreements.” Current regional programs include:
- New England Regional Student Program (RSP): Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Students are eligible for the RSP Tuition Break when they enroll in an approved major that is not offered by the public colleges and universities in their home state.
- Midwest Student Exchange Program (MSEP): Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin (note that Iowa, Ohio, and South Dakota do not participate at this time). Public institutions in participating states have agreed to charge students no more than 150% of the in-state resident tuition rate.
- Academic Common Market (ACM): Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Students who are residents of participating states receive discounted tuition for more than 1,900 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
- Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE): Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Students who are residents of participating states are eligible to request a reduced tuition rate of 150% of resident tuition at participating two- and four-year college programs outside of their home state. The reduced rate is not automatic and many participating schools limit the number of WUE awards they offer each year, so it’s important to apply early.
You should also contact your school’s financial aid office and find out if there are any institution-specific programs that may benefit you. For example, some schools allow the children of alumni or students who demonstrate high academic achievement to pay in-state tuition.
The fine print and red tape
State regulations and school policies can make it challenging to secure residency and, in turn, in-state tuition. Some schools are suspicious of students who apply shortly after moving to a new state, so it’s important to do things that will help improve your odds of being granted resident tuition, such as paying state income taxes, obtaining a driver’s license, or even simply getting a library card.
Long story short: there’s no easy way to get out of paying out-of-state tuition, but that shouldn’t stop you from going to the school of your dreams. See if there’s a tuition exchange program you can get in on, put in the time and effort needed to gain state residency, and speak with the admission and financial aid advisors at the school to discuss all of your options.