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It should go without saying that one of the best deals out there in the higher education market is your in-state public university.  Subsidized by taxpayer dollars, public universities provide state residents at all income levels access to a top quality education at a discounted price.  Therefore, your home state’s public universities can be a great place to start in the college search process.

What if your search takes you out-of-state though?  Some students find that an out-of-state public college may meet their needs better than their in-state options, whether those needs be for a particular academic program, internship and job opportunities, a warmer climate, or a winning basketball team.  Whatever your particular criteria, you should understand that you will generally pay a premium for accessing those resources at an out-of-state public school.

In limited circumstances, however, it is possible to pay in-state prices (or close to it) for an out-of-state college.  Many state universities participate in reciprocity agreements with neighboring states, where they agree to charge (at least some) residents of neighboring states lower tuition than they would students coming from across the country.  Here are the basics on the four largest tuition reciprocity agreements in the U.S.:

  • Academic Common Market (ACM): Public colleges within the 15 participating southeastern states of the ACM agree to charge in-state tuition to those students attending an out-of-state college within the ACM *if* the student’s home state does not offer the student’s program of study. For example, a student from landlocked Tennessee who wants to major in Marine Biology, a program unavailable at Tennessee state schools, can attend Coastal Carolina University without paying the much higher out-of-state tuition rate.  Only programs not available in your home state are eligible for reduced tuition, and individual colleges may impose additional restrictions (such as GPA or grade level requirements).  Though most public colleges within ACM states participate, there are a few big name colleges that opt out (University of Virginia is one, and Georgia Tech participates only at the graduate level).
    Participating states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida (graduate school only), Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas (graduate school only), Virginia, and West Virginia. 
  • New England Regional Student Program (RSP) Tuition Break: All public colleges within the six New England states participate in the Tuition Break program, offering reduced tuition (capped at 175% of the in-state tuition rate) to eligible students attending from another New England state. Similar to the ACM, in order to be eligible for reduced tuition, your program of study cannot be offered by your home state’s public institutions, though some participating colleges will allow proximity-based participation for border residents, where the out-of-state colleges is actually located closer to your home than any in-state public options.
    Participating states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
  • Midwestern Student Exchange Program (MSEP):  Public colleges within the 10 participating Midwestern states agree to charge out-of-state students enrolling from other MSEP states no more than 150% of their in-state tuition rate, and participating private colleges offer eligible students at least a 10% discount.  While enrollment in the exchange is automatic at some institutions, discount-granting is a competitive process at other colleges.  Many of the state flagship universities, like the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Michigan, do not participate.
    Participating States: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
  • Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE):  Participating public colleges within the 16 western states and territories agree to charge eligible out-of-state students from those same states no more than 150% of the in-state tuition rate.  Like some of the other reciprocity agreements, many of the most popular in colleges within the region (e.g. the entire University of California system, excepting Merced) choose not to participate (because they don’t have too—they have plenty of out-of-state students willing to pay full price).  Some participating colleges have limited spots for WUE applicants and may restrict discounts by major, academic standards, or financial need.
    Participating states/territories: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam/Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

As you can see, it is possible to pay in-state tuition—or close to it—at an out-of-state school through participation in one of these regional exchange agreements, or a similar program.  In addition to these large-scale agreements, other geographic discounting programs, such as the University of Minnesota system reciprocity agreement, the University of Maine Flagship Match, and the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program, are sometimes offered by individual institutions, so be sure to do your research to familiarize yourself with any potential discounts on the colleges you’re considering.  In general, public universities count on the revenue generated by high out-of-state tuition rates to keep their universities running, so discounts are not necessarily easy to come by, but many public colleges do offer merit scholarships to outstanding out-of-state students, so be strategic about your college list. Apply to schools—in-state, out-of-state, public, or private— where you stand out from the crowd, and you are unlikely to pay sticker price.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University.