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College can be a huge financial burden, especially if you're paying an out-of-state tuition rate vs. in-state tuition. The average cost of tuition at public universities for in-state students was $10,940 for 2022-23, while the average cost for out-of-state students was $28,240 — nearly three times more, according to College Board.
Establishing residency in the state where you're attending college can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars. The process can be daunting, but understanding how it works is the first step to success.
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How to establish residency to qualify for in-state tuition
To qualify for in-state tuition, you need to meet the state's residency requirements. Although requirements vary by state, you generally need to establish a minimum 12-month physical presence in the state, an intent to stay there and financial independence. Until you provide evidence to your college or university, you'll have to pay the higher out-of-state student rate.
Physical presence. Most states require you to live in the state for at least a full year before establishing residency. In most cases, this means students can’t go home during summer vacation. Ways to prove this include a lease with your name on it and regular bank statements showing that you are spending money in the state.
Intent. Students must show that they want to live in a state for reasons beyond just attending college there. You can prove this with a new driver’s license, voter registration card, pay stubs and a letter explaining your intentions to stay in that state.
Financial independence. Students must prove some sort of financial independence. Again, this definition varies widely, but it almost always involves students filing their own taxes. Some schools won’t let students receive any support from their parents, while others allow parents to pay part of the tuition.
» MORE: What is a tax dependent?
Four ways to afford out-of-state tuition
If you have your heart set on attending a public institution in another state, you might be able to qualify for in-state tuition or reduced rates by taking advantage of residency exceptions, scholarships and tuition exchange or reciprocity agreements. Here’s how.
1. Consider where your parents live
If your parents are separated or divorced and live in different states, you may be eligible for in-state tuition in either state. While some states only consider you a resident if your parent has primary custody, that's not the case nationwide.
With some states, such as Tennessee, you can qualify for in-state tuition as long as one of your parents lives in the state, even if they aren't the custodial parent.
2. Take advantage of tuition exchange and reciprocity agreements
Many states participate in tuition exchange and reciprocity agreements that allow students who live in certain states to attend school in a partnering state at a lower rate. Here are several you could qualify for depending on your state of residence.
Academic Common Market
The Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market is a tuition savings program available in 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
Students can pursue degrees at over 100 participating institutions and qualify for in-state tuition. However, students must attend a participating school and pursue a degree in an eligible field; not all universities and majors qualify.
Midwest Student Exchange Program
Students who live in Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota or Wisconsin may be eligible for the Midwest Student Exchange Program. Under this program, out-of-state students can attend school at a participating institution in a partner state and pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition cost.
Through the New England Board of Higher Education’s Tuition Break program, out-of-state students pursuing eligible degrees at participating schools can qualify for a discount on tuition; the maximum cost is 175% of the school's in-state rate. Savings vary by school, but the average annual tuition savings per full-time student was $8,600 as of 2023.
Residents of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are eligible.
Regional Contract Program
Through the Southern Regional Education Board’s Regional Contract Program, eligible students pursuing certain professional health degrees at participating schools can qualify for in-state tuition at public universities and a reduced tuition rate at private schools.
Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina participate in this program.
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Programs
WICHE operates several programs for different degree levels and fields:
Western Undergraduate Exchange. The Western Undergraduate Exchange is a partnership of 15 states, U.S. Pacific territories and freely-associated states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. Eligible students can attend a participating school and pay no more than 150% of in-state tuition rate. More than 160 schools participate.
Western Regional Graduate Program. Through this program, students can attend school in a partnering state to pursue a graduate certificate, master's or doctoral degree and pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition rate.
Professional Student Exchange Program. Students pursuing degrees in certain health fields, including optometry and dentistry, can enroll in a participating out-of-state school and qualify for a significant discount thanks to the Professional Student Exchange Program. Over their college career, participants can save between $34,100 and $133,600. Participating states vary by health specialty.
3. Apply for institutional scholarships and grants
Many public universities offer scholarships specifically for non-resident students, which can significantly shrink the cost of attendance. In some cases, the scholarship will reduce tuition to match the in-state tuition rate. For example:
Colorado State University. The Green and Gold Scholarship is a merit-based award that gives non-residents up to $10,000 per year for up to four years.
Delaware State University. Delaware State University offers a variety of awards, including a full tuition scholarship for non-residents.
University of New Mexico. Non-residents entering their first year of college can qualify for $15,000 to $24,000 per year in scholarships, like the Regents’ Scholarship.
4. Ask about residency exceptions
Some states will give in-state tuition to non-residents based on their employment, military service or location:
Employment. If you work for the state university system, are a first responder or a teacher, you may qualify for in-state tuition in another state. For instance, full-time faculty members and professional staff who work for the Massachusetts public higher education system are eligible for in-state tuition.
Military service. If you, your spouse or parent are a military service member and stationed in another state, you can typically qualify for in-state tuition in the state where you're stationed. For example, Rhode Island allows students whose parents or guardians are members of the Armed Forces and stationed within the state to attend school at the resident rate.
Neighbor discounts. Some states provide in-state tuition rates to residents of neighboring states or counties near the state border. For example, Oregon residents who live near the border of Washington can qualify for in-state tuition in Washington state.
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