Should You Apply to an Out-of-State Public University?

I heard from a mom this week, who is worried about some of the schools her daughter has begun applying to. I wanted to share what the mother wrote:
As I watch my daughter start her college applications, I’m cringing inside because she’s wanting to apply to out of state public schools such as UCLA, Georgia Tech and Purdue. Although Purdue states that it does have scholarships to out of state students, I’m worried that this will end up being a waste of time and the cost of the application fees.
I would add “public schools in other states” to the list of schools that generally don’t give merit aid.

The Allure of Distant State Universities

I don’t blame Patty for being concerned. In some cases, the cost of attending an out-of-state school an end up costing the same or more than a private college or university. Here’s why: state universities are looking for more sources of revenue and what better way to capture extra cash than from impressionable 18-year-olds who think it would be cool to go to the University of Michigan or some other high visibility state school?
While many state universities give merit money, I’d argue that the flagships universities are going to be more tightfisted because they rarely have to worry about attracting enough students. I’ve heard from students, for instance, who have received $5,000 merit awards from the University of Michigan, which isn’t going to go far. Michigan for the typical nonresident is going to cost about $50,000 a year.
Some prestigious state universities, such as UCLA, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington in Seattle don’t give out any merit awards. Any of the University of California campuses would cost your daughter about $53,000 a year! The tuition at the University of Washington is $10,826 versus $28,310 for nonresidents. That’s a huge premium to pay for the privilege of going to a state school that has been facing severe financial troubles, which you can read about in this Chronicle of Higher Education story.

Doing Your Due Diligence

Before students aim for state schools as nonresidents, here are a couple of things you should do:

1. Use Net Price Calculators With Caution.

I’ve written a lot about net price calculators lately and you should definitely use a calculator before applying to any school including out-of-state public universities to see what the price will be. As a nonresident, however, you need to be careful that you are getting an accurate price.  Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb and FinAid, said he tried a few calculators on state university sites a few months ago and observed it was “hit or miss” on whether these calculators asked for the residency of an applicant.

2. Research scholarship availability.

Head over to a school’s admission web pages and research what kind of out-of-state scholarships are available. Typically these scholarships will be awarded based on a child’s test scores and GPA. These schools don’t have the manpower to evaluate applicants holistically so awards are often strictly by the numbers.

More from The College Solution

Out-of-State Universities: Finding Bargains
4 Ways to Cut the Cost of an Out-of-State University
What is Your Expected Family Contribution
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. We are starting to find some out of state universities that offer full tuition scholarships to non-residents. University of Alabama and Utah State will both offer full tuition scholarships based on my daughter’s grades and test scores. She’s already accepted at Alabama, we’re waiting to hear about her scholarship and we will take a hard look at Utah State when their rep comes to visit. I guess there are options if one looks hard enough and has an open mind. And we will make sure she applies to each school’s Honors Program, which should help her have a more intimate University experience.

    1. Thanks Patty for your info on full tuition scholarships to non-residents. Clearly it’s the less prestigious state schools that are going to be more generous. Not having to pay for college is certainly going to be hugely attractive and with honors colleges it can be a great deal.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Lynn,
    A FYI for this mom and daughter. Two years ago we went through this process. My daughter had a high GPA with honor and AP courses and a 32 on the ACT. She applied to a couple of out of state public institutions and private liberal arts colleges where she was in the upper 5% to 10% with her grades and tests scores for those institutions’ applicants. Not one of the large state institutions awarded any merit aid. She did receive an academic scholarship from a public liberal arts college which she is now attending. The private liberal arts colleges offered her any where from $4,000 to $16,000 a year in merit aid. I realize every case is different, but I hope this information is useful to the daughter in her choices.

    1. Thanks Heather for sharing your daughter’s experience. I am not surprised by what you just told me. The new net price calculators should help families discover much earlier if public or private schools will cut the price.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy