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10 Tips to Get In-State Tuition for Out-of-State Colleges

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About 17 percent of students attend college out-of-state, and they pay dearly for it. The typical out-of-state tuition rate at a four-year public university is three to four times more than the in-state rate, e.g., $30,528 out-of-state vs. $8,760 in-state per year at Colorado University-Boulder. Unfortunately, that expensive out-of-state rate is out of reach for many students, and despite their strong desire to go elsewhere, many students settle on going to college in the state where they were raised. But they don't have to settle; they have options. They may be able to earn in-state tuition at an out-of state college. Here are 10 ways to make it happen:

1. Look in the mirror: Are you sure you want to leave?
Getting in-state tuition isn't easy. How important is it, really? Plenty of fantastic colleges and universities are in your state, and you can already get the in-state rate at them. Is this something you really want to commit to or are you just thinking about it? If you're going to go down this route, then you need to be committed before you start. You might be able to avoid all the hassle by just staying home.

2. Try regional reciprocity exchanges.
Four major regional reciprocity exchanges allow a resident of one state to attend certain colleges in another state at close to in-state rates. For example, if you're a resident of California with excellent grades and test scores, you could attend Montana State University for 150 percent of the in-state rate (Note: availability is limited and certain restrictions apply). The four major exchanges are: 1) Western Undergraduate Exchange; 2) Southern Regional Education Board Academic Common Market; 3) Midwest Student Exchange; and 4) New England Regional Student Program. The caveat is that not all colleges participate in the reciprocity network, and some that do have strict requirements, such as allowing only certain majors to apply or only allowing a handful of spots. In general, don't count on the most highly desirable out-of-state schools participating. Nevertheless, you must check this first.

3. In-state rates are for in-state residents, not transient students.
It would be folly to think you deserve in-state tuition in another state simply because you are attending college there. States want to know you're committed to living there and intend to be a permanent resident. States want to know you plan to work there, have a family there, pay taxes, spend money locally and contribute to the economy. If you're just there to go to school, you're out of luck. In fact, most colleges stipulate that you must overcome the presumption that you are in the state primarily to go to school. Depending on the state and the college, that might mean a lot of different things: One college might consider you a transient student if you're a full-time student; another won't care about that but will insist that you have a job; another will tell you that you shouldn't live in the dorms; and another might care a lot about what you do over the summer.

4. Figure out the rules and err on the side of caution.
Even though you can find basic information on college websites and talk to the schools to a point, the process is designed to be tough to navigate. Unanswerable questions and gray areas will leave you uncertain, and it may feel like a bit of a guessing game at times. Colleges are in a position where they are supposed to neither help nor hinder your quest for in-state residency; they are simply the judges. Some colleges are more straightforward, helpful and knowledgeable than others. The reason clear answers aren't really available is that it's a quasi-legal system involving more subjectivity and luck than is readily apparent. Most colleges will tell you that there is no formulaic way of doing it, that it's a case-by-case matter.

5. Every state—and every college—is different.
Few blanket solutions can be shared because every person's situation is unique. States and colleges have their own criteria for what it means to be an in-state resident for tuition purposes. It's possible to qualify for in-state tuition at one college in a state but not at another. Also, rules change ... sometimes unexpectedly.

6. It's not instant.
Qualifying for in-state tuition typically takes about one year after you move and begin the process. Colleges may require one or more years of proof to get and keep in-state tuition. Other schools have random audits every year after you've earned in-state status.

7. Watch out for pitfalls.
Respect deadlines. You don't want to spend a year or more building your case only to end up saying: "Oh, I didn't know that was an actual deadline"; "Wait, I was supposed to do what with my car?"; or "Hold on, I'm not allowed to live with my aunt and uncle in town for free?" Don't expect someone to make an exception for you. Colleges must follow state-mandated rules without exception. Know the answers to the following:

  • Are you allowed to be a full-time student?
  • Are you not allowed to live in the dorms or are you required to live in the dorms?
  • Can your parents pay for anything, some things or everything?
  • Do you have to have a job? What if you lose it?
  • What about health insurance and your cell phone plan?

8. Don't start unless you're committed and know what you're doing. Assume nothing.
It's really easy to misinterpret the proper significance of certain acts. Common sense and logic sometimes do not apply. You don't want to do way more than is required, and you don't ever want to do less than is required. There are certain things you're liable to think are fine but might not be, such as: "Of course, my parents can buy me a plane ticket to Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break"; "Certainly, there is no problem with me working as a camp counselor in some other state over the summer"; or "Surely, finding $500 under that rock counts as a legitimate source of income."

9. Don't lie.
It will be tempting to embellish the truth, lie by omission or misrepresent yourself. Don't! You may be stuck in situations where you need certain documentation that will then become impossible for you to furnish. There's a right way and a wrong way to earn in-state tuition. The wrong way could lead to university disciplinary action, including expulsion, and you could be charged with fraud for submitting any falsified documentation or misrepresenting yourself. If a college finds out something down the road, you could additionally be retroactively assessed out-of-state tuition. If you're serious about getting in-state tuition, you need to commit to doing it totally aboveboard or don't do it at all.

10. Need help? Consider hiring an expert.
There are a lot of ins and outs to successfully earning in-state tuition. You not only need to know exactly what to do, but then you have to do it precisely and prove it … and possibly prove it again. People do it, but it's all easier said than done. If you need help, In-State Angels claims on their website to get students "qualified to earn in-state tuition in the fastest way legally possible." They accept clients across the country and "guarantee to get you in-state tuition or you owe them nothing." They only charge a percentage of your tuition savings if they are successful and they are well rated by the Better Business Bureau.

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