8 Things to Know About Attending State Universities Outside Your Borders


If  you have to pay nonresident tuition, are public universities worth the price?

That is the question facing three families whose children are heading to a state university as nonresidents this fall or are contemplating one of these institutions in the future.

In my last post, I shared the issues the families faced and also solicited advice or comments from visitors to my college blog. I was thrilled to see so many of you come through with great observations.

If you missed the post and the comments, please go back and read them:

Should Students Attend State Universities Beyond Their Borders?

Today I wanted to share a few observations of my own.

1. Difficult state residency requirements.

Many families hope that their children will be able to become a resident in the state where they are attending school after the first year and then qualify for in-state tuition.

That was the hope of a teenager whose situation I profiled in my last post. The state university the girl expects to attend in the fall costs $50,000 a year for nonresidents. The parents will only pay for one year and expect the girl to qualify for in-state tuition and cover the remaining three years.

This is nothing short of financial suicide and if the parents think they can sign off on this and watch their child drown in debt, they are mistaken. The daughter would need to obtain private loans and no lender will hand over the money without a co-signer. I hope that puts the kaboosh on this insane plan.

 Most states have residency requirements to prevent students like the one described above from benefiting from lower in-state costs. The residency requirements vary significantly, but according to FinAid, a student typically must have at least one parent who is a state resident for at least one full year before the student starts college. You can find links to the state residency requirements at FinAid.

2. Elite flagships are fixated on rich students.

If you aren’t rich, I’d strongly suggest that you forget about attending flagships that enjoy golden brand names like the Universities of California, Michigan and Virginia or that are located in desirable geographic areas such as the Universities of Colorado and Arizona.  These schools and others with strong US News rankings are hungry for outsiders who can bankroll an education that can cost more than $225,000.

Some of these schools, such as Arizona and Michigan, provide token merit scholarships (the averages are  $7,642 and $6,816  respectively), but that won’t go far when you will be paying private school prices for state educations. Some flagships, such as the University of Wisconsin and University of California campuses, don’t give any merit scholarships to outsiders.

Prestigious state schools are charging high prices because they can. Plenty of wealthy families are willing to pay the tab because of the prestige attached to a school like the University of Virginia, UCLA, University of North Carolina or University of Michigan.

Unfortunately, some students heading to these flagships can’t afford the cost and will face scary debt loads just to earn a diploma from a school with a marquee name.

3. Don’t flatter yourself.

It’s easier to get into prestigious flagships as an outsider now because these institutions need the easy money. If parents are willing to pay $50,000 to attend Indiana University, (like one of the dads in my last post appears ready to do) IU will gleefully take the money.

State universities have been recruiting heavily across state lines, in part, because state governments have been reducing their financial support. Finding out-of-state sugar daddies is one way for these schools to survive financially. And it’s easier to attract rich students to their campuses than for these institutions to get serious about making meaningful structural changes.

I wrote a story for my college blog over at CBS MoneyWatch a couple of years ago about a dad, who works at Columbia University, whose daughter had planned to attend the University of Michigan in the fall of 2011. She attended the new student orientation before her dad noticed that he had misread the bill. He thought the tuition was going to be a total of $19,000, but that was the price per semester.

 4. Look beyond the obvious choices.

If you look beyond the most popular flagships, plenty of state schools offer significant discounts to nonresidents.

Like the flagship schools, whether you qualify for admission comes down to your academic statistics. You can often find a scholarship matrix on the websites of universities. The one below comes from the University of Nevada, Reno.

State institutions that are off  the popularity radar are interested in outsiders because they can generate more money from them (but the amounts will be significantly  lower than what the prominent flagships can charge).

Another prime motivator for the outreach to smart nonresidents is to inch up U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings. I frankly find this is craven, but it’s the reality.


A potential drawback to attending less prestigious schools is that they often don’t enjoy the level of resources as their brand name peers. One consequence of this will be lower graduation rates. The four-year grad rate at the University of Nevada, Reno, for example, is an appalling 13.6%.

I should add that some of the popular destination schools such as University of Colorado and University of Wisconsin don’t have great four-year grad rates (50% and 41% respectively) either and the price tags will be far, far higher.

One way to boost the chances of getting out in four years and to enjoy a better educational experience is to try to get into a state school’s honors college. These honors colleges were created as a way to attract smart students who normally might be heading to private schools.

5. Check education compacts.

You can also look for state schools that observe a reciprocity agreement with institutions in your state. Thanks to one of these agreements, you may pay the same price as a resident or capture a significant discount. Here are the four regional compacts:

  • Western Undergraduate Exchange
  • Academic Common Market
  • Midwestern Higher Education Compact
  • New England Board of Higher Education

6. Schools go by the numbers.

State schools don’t enjoy the luxury of evaluating students holistically. There are too many students applying.

Merit scholarships are awarded basically by looking at a child’s grade point average, test scores and class ranks. If your child is weak in one or more of these areas, the chances for money or meaningful money will drop significantly. Head over to a state university’s admission web pages and research what kind of out-of-state scholarships are available.

7. Throw a wide net.

In my last post, I  was struck by the mother who said her daughter is such a good student that she deserves to attend a flagship outside her state of New Mexico. I agree that smart students should conduct a broader search, but what upset me was that it only occurred to the family to check out other state schools.

They should also be looking at private schools. The latest report on private school pricing, which was released this week, documented that the average tuition discount at private colleges and universities is now 53%.

8. Check prices before applying.

Don’t let your child apply to any state or private school without first using a net price calculator that will give you personalized estimate of what that school would cost you.

When checking out state universities as a nonresident you need to be careful that you are getting an accurate price.  If the calculator doesn’t ask about your state residency, the cost estimate will probably be wrong.



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  1. which would be a better choice for an engineering major; SUNY Buffalo (honors program), Binghamton or Albany (honors program)? I am thinking the honors program at Buffalo for example outweigh Binghamton not being in their honors program? binghamton is also the most expensive and gave a little merit money only if we stay on campus

  2. The four year grad rate is over-rated and inaccurate comparison. Pharmacy, for example, usually takes minimum of five and often six, to earn degree. Many engineering programs with co-ops go over four years and so forth. Some states also simply have larger populations per flagship institutions – for example, Illinois (with more than twice the population of neighboring Indiana) has tough-to-get-admitted University of Illinois, whereas Indiana has both Purdue (great school) and Indiana (easier than Purdue requirements but still fine school.)

  3. Hi Lynn, thanks so much for your information. I have a daughter planning on starting college in two years. She of course would love UC Berkley, which would be out of state, and I am not rich. I understand their not providing merit scholarships, but I am confused by the issue of financial aid. Were she to get accepted at Grinnell as I understand it, she also would not get merit aid, but would very likely get most of the financial aid needed. For the sake of clarity, let’s say my estimated family contribution is zero. She could get the Pell Grant. Would she be eligible for any financial aid from either the state of CA, or from UC Berkley? Thanks.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Attending UC Berkeley would be a financial disaster for a family with little resources. Assuming you had an automatic zero EFC, which would mean you make $24,000 a year, you would have to pay Berkeley more than $31,000 for the freshman year. The UC price for nonresidents is $55,000 so you would get some price break. Grinnell is a far better financial alternative (it meets 100% of need) and I’d argue a much better academic choice for an undergraduate.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. UT Austin and Texas A&M are required to take the top 8% and top 10% respectively. They take many more than that from our top high school. They do serve Texans well and also welcome them back into Med and Law schools with instate tuition for students who are dependents of their TX parents even if they go away to school. Another good reason to think hard about declaring residency in another state.

    1. Historically, New Jersey’s public colleges, as well as Rutgers, have not faced a high demand from out-of-state students. Neither have New York’s (Excluding Binghamton, Fashion Institute of Technology and the SUNY schools that are affiliated with Cornell and Syracuse).

    1. Stuart — UNC was the one that I knew about. Do you know why the nonresident percentage is low at the other schools?

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. The motivation for the SUNY schools (and CUNY as well) comes from a Chancellor’s office; the thought is that these schools are “for the people of New York State.” I do know from my visits to Binghamton and Geneseo that the schools cannot set their own tuition and fees, unless they are partially affiliated with a private institution (for example, the School of Forestry at Syracuse University or the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell).

      At Georgia, their senior admissions official told me: “We’re here to serve the State of Georgia.” It does not mean that out-of-state students are not welcome, but that space is tight in a state where practically every resident applicant walks in with a state scholarship (the HOPE). Florida also has a similar scholarship program.

      Rutgers-New Brunswick has enrollment of 15 percent from out-of-state, about half of that being international students. In prior years there have been administrators who want to raise that percentage, but legislators have told them no.

      I don’t know the reasons surrounding Ohio State and Texas A&M.

  5. There’s a another issue when it comes to some state schools: they limit the percentage of out-of-state students in order to make more room for residents.

    Binghamton University (NY), for example is a great value for out-of-state students (actually cheaper than Penn State would be for a Pennsylvania resident) but it takes less than 5 percent of its students from other U.S. states (international students represent 10 percent of the student body). SUNY-Geneseo, another great value, takes less than five percent from outside New York (including the international students).

    Among the schools that I consider “Public Ivies” based on value, retention rates and graduation rates (besides Binghamton and Geneseo), most take less than a fifth of their students from other states including Ohio State (12%), Texas A&M (3%), University of Florida (2%), University of Georgia (15%) and UNC-Chapel Hill (18%). A student from in-state or out-of-state who can be a Foundation Fellow at UGa or a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill gets a fantastic deal.

    1. HI Stuart,

      I think the schools you cite are unusual. I believe at least one of those schools (and probably most of them) is prohibited from state law from accepting more nonresidents.

      Most flagships are seeking nonresidents to fill a significant section of their class. The University of California, to its credit, resisted this for many years but finally succumbed.

      Here are the percentage of nonresidents at some state flagships:

      U of Michigan 34%
      University of Wisconsin 34%
      University of Iowa 39%
      University of Maryland 44%
      University of Vermont 67%
      University of Oregon 35%
      University of South Carolina 31%

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy