As we approach the time of year when financial aid letters are hitting mailboxes, a common question comes to the forefront of parents’ minds when sending their students to colleges across state lines:

Is there a way my student can gain residency and qualify for in-state tuition?

The answer is, unfortunately, it depends. The rules vary state-to-state and college-to-college. Some states make this an easier process whereas some make it near impossible. Also, keep in mind that state (i.e. public) colleges are primarily concerned with serving the residents in their state so typically make it hard for out-of-state students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. This is especially true if the student is without some type of merit or affiliation (see below).

If you are interested in learning more about a particular public college on your list, I encourage clients to check the school’s website (Google school name + residency requirements). Most state schools post the requirements on their website. This should give you a better idea of what you are up against!

What is in-state tuition?

There are two main categories of colleges: public and private. This is a key distinction, as public schools are – at least partially – funded by the state in which they reside. If you are familiar with the higher education sector, you will know that this funding has dropped off the cliff in recent years. However, state schools are primarily founded to serve the residents of their state. In other words, the University of Arkansas is focused on educating the citizens of Arkansas, the University of Missouri, Missourians, etc. Even without the significant (historical) funding from state governments, these colleges incentivize their own state residents to attend through “cheap” tuition rates. If you think about it, this makes sense. State legislative bodies (that approve funding for state schools) are primarily concerned with their funding benefitting constituents in their own state, not outsiders. Therefore, out-of-state residents tend to pay higher tuition rates. And by higher, I mean significantly higher in most cases.

Private schools, on the other hand, do not have this dynamic at play. They generally charge one tuition rate regardless of residency (international students excluded). Although published tuition rates are higher, they engage in tuition discounting.

How do I know if a college is public or private?

The easiest way to check is Wikipedia. Search for “type” on the banner with summary facts and you will find that information. Here is an example from the University of Chicago‘s page:

Are there other ways to avoid in-state tuition?

Absolutely, and these are arguably the easier pathways to gaining in-state tuition. Many colleges grant in-state tuition waivers to students with high GPAs, class ranks, and test scores. Others provide waivers for an affiliation. A good example of this is the Midwest Student Exchange Program. Still, others provide discounted rates for the local area surrounding the college (this is more common in metro areas that span across state lines). Luckily, waivers are more common as colleges continue to struggle against declining enrollment.

The best way to ensure college affordability is to build a diversified school list at the beginning of the college search process. For more information on that, see my blog post on building a great school list during the junior year of high school.