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How to Establish Residency and Get In-State Tuition Savings

Generally, students need to be financially independent, live in the state for at least a year and prove that they intend to stay.
Oct. 25, 2017
Loans, Student Loans
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College can be a huge financial burden, especially if you’re paying an out-of-state tuition rate. The difference between 2017-18 in-state and out-of-state tuition at public four-year colleges is $15,650 on average, according to data published by the 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.

» MORE: 8 expert-approved ways to pay for college

Residency requirements

Requirements to become a resident vary widely by state and university, which can make the process confusing. Generally, you need to establish a physical presence in the state, an intent to stay there and financial independence. Then you need to prove those things to your college or university.

  • 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. 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. Some universities will not grant in-state tuition to students who receive financial aid.

Students must show that they want to live in a state for reasons beyond just attending college there.

States with strong public universities, including California, Vermont, Michigan and Arizona, tend to have strict residency for tuition requirements. The process is easier in Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah, says Jake Wells, founder of In-State Angels, a company that helps students navigate the process of establishing residency for tuition purposes. This is largely because these states want to attract more out-of-state talent to their schools, he adds.

Out-of-state students also tend to have success establishing residency and getting in-state tuition at the University of Missouri, the University of Iowa and the University of Oregon, says Joe Orsolini, a financial planner from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

» MORE: How much should you borrow for college?

Other ways to save at out-of-state schools

Orsolini says many of his clients consider establishing residency for tuition purposes, but few actually do it after weighing the savings against the time and money it takes.

“The residency advantage gets wiped out when you consider the cost of living away from home, missed tax breaks and credits and the opportunity cost of being out of the work force that extra year,” Orsolini says.

If establishing residency isn’t the right decision for you, there are other ways to get lower tuition rates at out-of state schools. Look into regional reciprocity agreements facilitated by the Southern Regional Education Board, the Western Undergraduate Exchange, the Midwest Student Exchange Program or the New England Board of Higher Education to get lowered or in-state rates. Some colleges also offer scholarships specifically for out-of-state students.

No matter how you do it, aim to take advantage of in-state tuition if you plan to attend college in another state. As you’re saving for college, NerdWallet can help. Sign up for free to see how.

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