How to get in-state college tuition

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Public colleges and universities typically offer two tuition rates: in-state tuition for residents and out-of-state tuition for nonresidents. You’ll have to establish residency in order to get in-state tuition, but the savings could be worth it if you’re planning on moving away for college. According to the College Board, the difference between the average in-state tuition and the average out-of-state tuition was a staggering $16,460 during the 2020-21 school year for four-year institutions.

How to get in-state college tuition

The rules for establishing residency in a state depend on where you live. However, there are some general state residency requirements you may come across, including how long you’ve been in the state, whether you intend to remain there after college and your dependency and citizenship statuses.

How long do you have to live in a state to get in-state tuition?

You generally need to live in the state for a full 12 months before you can apply for resident status. This means that you can’t return home for the summer. You can typically provide proof of this with a lease agreement, utility bills, pay stubs showing your address or a letter from your employer.

Additionally, the state may require you to provide evidence that you intend to remain in the state for more than just educational purposes. For example, you can get a driver’s license issued by that state, register your vehicle in the state or move your voter registration from your home state. In other words, you need to show that you don’t plan on staying in the state only temporarily.

Other state residency requirements

In addition to how long you’ve been in the state and plan on staying there, you’ll also need to prove that you’re financially independent and that you’re a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident or a noncitizen with an eligible visa.

One way to prove that you’re financially independent is to show your tax returns for the last year or two. If you’re still being claimed as a dependent on your parents’ tax return, though, you could have trouble with eligibility.

If you’re unsure about whether your visa qualifies, contact your school’s administrative office to learn about what qualifies where you live.

In some cases, you may be eligible for an exemption to some of these rules. For example, you may be married to someone who qualifies as a resident, or you may be a long-time resident of the state but have been away for some time without establishing residency somewhere else. Check with your school to get an idea of which exemptions you may be able to get.

Is establishing residency worth it?

Taking the time to establish residency can save you a ton of money — an average savings of $16,460 per year adds up to $65,840 over four years. However, it can be challenging to meet all of the requirements, especially if you’re a younger student and still primarily dependent on your parents.

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year to complete the process, consider the fact that it delays your college experience and graduation by a full year. This isn’t always a bad thing; it could be helpful if it gives you the opportunity to work full time to save up for college expenses and establish financial independence.

A more significant drawback to keep in mind is that you’ll need to relinquish your residency status in your home state. You’ll no longer be registered to vote there, and if the income tax rate is worse in the new state, you’ll need to factor in that additional cost.

With all this in mind, do your due diligence on the process and how likely it is that your work will pay off. If it doesn’t, you may end up behind and still paying a higher rate.

Other ways to lower tuition costs

Understanding how to establish residency can make a big difference in the long run, but in the short term, there are other ways you can approach the issue and save money on college.

Regional exchange programs

Some states participate in regional tuition exchange programs, which allow students in neighboring states to qualify for a reduced tuition rate at select schools.

One example is the Western Undergraduate Exchange, which includes 16 states and territories. Students who participate in this program won’t pay more than 150 percent of the college’s in-state tuition rate.

Using the average four-year in-state tuition at public colleges, which was $10,560 for the 2020-21 school year, the maximum you’d pay is $15,840 instead of the $27,020 average for out-of-state students.

Reciprocity agreements

Instead of or in addition to taking part in a regional exchange program, some states may have reciprocity agreements with individual states.

For example, Wisconsin residents can attend public schools in Minnesota and pay in-state tuition rates, and vice versa. Check with your state to find out if it has an agreement like this.

Student exchange programs

Regardless of the state’s rules, some educational institutions have agreements with each other to provide in-state tuition for students from other participating schools.

The National Student Exchange has more than 150 participating schools in the U.S., Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If your school is in the program and you attend another school in the program as part of this “study away” program, you’ll either pay the hosting school’s in-state tuition rate or your home school’s tuition rate.

One thing to note, however, is that you can only stay at a host school for one full academic year, but you can spend time at multiple participating schools during your college career.

Scholarships and grants

One of the best ways to fund your education is through scholarships and grants. Unlike with student loans, you don’t have to pay back these forms of financial aid. Your school may offer scholarships and grants based on your financial need. You may also qualify for other opportunities based on your merits, heritage, experience and other factors.

Additionally, many private organizations offer scholarships and grants to college students who qualify. Websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb provide access to millions of opportunities.

Whether you try one of these alternative programs or focus on getting free financial aid, it’s important that you take your time to do your research on all of your options and be proactive about your strategy to save on tuition costs.

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Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor