Busted: Six top myths of in-state tuition eligibility

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If you’re thinking about pulling a quick state-residency switch to get a tuition break, you’d better think again.

“Admissions folks are swifter than you think they are,” says Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the
American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “Honesty is the best policy.”

We’ve all heard friends, co-workers and relatives talk about putting one over on admissions offices. “My daughter will use her grandmother’s address on her application,” one will say. “We’re going to get our son an apartment there after graduation so he’ll be considered a resident,” boasts another.

With the full cost of nonresident instruction at many colleges and universities typically being four times what residents pay, it’s no wonder families may look for a way to buck the system. Between 2000-01 and 2004-05, the national average for nonresident undergraduate tuition and fees at comprehensive colleges and state universities increased by 37.2 percent to $11,351. In-state resident tuition and fees actually increased by a heftier 43.6 percent over that period, but the 2004-05 average was still only $4,545 per year, according to a
Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board study.

When states offer residents a substantial tuition benefit, “it becomes very consequential whether you’re classified as a resident or not,” notes David L. Wright, a senior research analyst at the nonprofit
State Higher Education Executive Officers.

But taking a undeserved shot at qualifying for in-state tuition outside your home state is not advisable.

Here are the six most-common myths about in-state residency and the realities behind them:

Myth #1: If you have an address, you’re a resident.

Anyone can have an address, and states demand more evidence of permanent residency than a street address or postal box. Proof of voter registration, having a driver’s license and car registered, and income tax returns may be required as well. The documents will indicate whether you really live there or if it’s just a “storefront,” explains Reindl. In some cases, states want to be sure you not only live there now, but intend to stay, regardless of whether you’re in school.

A rule of thumb, says Harold M. Simansky, author of the workbook, ”
College Costs How Much?” is this: “If the child has not been an in-state high school graduate, the hurdle is very high.”

Myth #2: After one year at school, residency will be established.

Home is where you hang your hat — by sophomore year, in-state tuition will be ours, goes the logic. Not so fast, especially in the world of in-state tuition determinations, where a year of residency is the most common standard but can mean different things. “Twelve months is not 12 months is not 12 months,” Reindl points out. A 2003 Florida study of residency criteria concluded that the state’s residency rules are ambiguous, with individual institutions being just as individual when evaluating residency claims. It’s an issue in other states, too.

Generally, students who start school in August or September and then expect to qualify for in-state tuition the following school year are “going to get a rude awakening,” Reindl says. “In most places, that 12 months has to be spent outside the university. You have to be working, doing something other than being a full-time student.”

Myth #3: If I marry an established state resident, I’m a state resident, too.

Resident-by-marriage theories sound good but don’t hold much legal water. What’s more, a couple moving together to a new state doesn’t have it easy, either. When Wright moved from Arkansas to Florida as a graduate student, he and his wife filed a “declaration of domicile” as soon as they arrived in the Sunshine State. A year later, when he applied for residency for tuition purposes, it took rent receipts, his voter registration, his Florida tax return, and letters from both of their employers to forge a successful residency case.

Myth #4: It can’t hurt to try to qualify.

While it’s true that college admission and residency status are separate issues, a ruling that you’re a nonresident can affect your admission status. “The paperwork is all there at the same time,” Reindl says. “If Johnny applies and makes the case he’s a resident, but the school determines he’s not and it’s really close to their line of resident/nonresident mix, it can mean the difference between him being wait-listed or not.”

Institutions aren’t just being sticklers. States often limit the representation of nonresident students at state public institutions of higher education to a particular percentage, explains Wright. There is often, however, some wiggle room to account for larger state schools recruiting internationally. Regardless of the admissions decision, accepted students found to be nonresidents will need to pay off that higher tuition bill to stay.

Myth #5: Once eligibility is determined, you’re home free.

When someone files a questionable residency status claim that’s accepted, it’s not a case-closed situation. “Campuses pay more attention to this than folks might think. And they’ve become fairly good about sniffing out a nonresident,” Reindl says. Being outed as a nonresident midway through the school year or college career can spell disaster for a carefully constructed college financing plan. Conversely, it can be more than frustrating to have legitimate residency denied. That’s where the right to appeal can come in handy.

Myth #6: It’s impossible to qualify for in-state tuition anywhere but in your home state.

Now for the good news. Yes, in-state tuition rules are designed to weed out nonresidents. “A fair chunk of the population feels that state taxpayers support these universities and they’re for the state citizens,” Reindl says. And the burden of residency proof is on the applicant. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t proudly attend school in another state at a discounted price.

Some institutions have historically offered in-state tuition to residents in bordering counties of a neighboring state, says Wright. Then there are reciprocity programs, which offer reduced tuition to nearby state residents, such as the
Southern Regional Education Board’s Regional Contract Program, the
New England Regional Student Program and the
Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Student Exchange Programs.

Where these programs don’t exist, exceptions to residency rules likely do. Children of active-duty military service members are a notable exception, with policies varying by state. Other groups may include children of divorced parents (i.e., who is paying for school), and even children of state-college alumni. Tuition waivers and discounts may apply to students with athletic, musical or other desired talents, as well.

The key is checking on policies while shopping around for schools, Reindl says. Always ask the institution; for residency standards by state, visit the
College Board online. Wright says no college decision should be made based on cost alone. “If you end up with a financial bargain that doesn’t meet your other needs,” he says, “then it’s not really a bargain at the end of the day.”

Melissa Ezarik is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.