In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition: What Students Need to Know


If you’ve spent any time looking at colleges, you’ve probably discovered that out-of-state tuition is always higher than in-state tuition. And it’s not just a little bit higher. On average, out-of-state tuition costs over $15,000 more—and the gap grows wider every year.

Unfortunately, you can’t just hop across the border and pay in-state tuition.

It might seem weird, but “in-state” means different things in different states. You may have also noticed: not all schools charge separate tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students. But something you might not know is that not all out-of-state students have to pay the full out-of-state rate.

So what’s going on here? Why is there a difference, and what does it mean for you? We’re about to let you in on some state secrets.

OK, you’re right, that’s a bad pun. This is all public information.

Why out-of-state tuition costs more

Every year, anyone who owns property pays property taxes, which the local government uses to fund projects and organizations that benefit the general public . . . like schools. Publicly funded schools are highly regulated, and they should be the only colleges or universities where you ever see a difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition.

The idea is that state residents should receive the maximum benefit of the taxes they pay. So wherever you live, you can enjoy lower in-state tuition thanks to your tax dollars (or your parents’ tax dollars). That’s nice, but if you aren’t interested in the schools your state helps fund, it’s not very helpful.

If you’re looking at a school that doesn’t differentiate between in-state and out-of-state tuition, that’s a good indicator that it’s a private college. We’ll talk more about those later, but first, let’s look at tuition costs.

How much does tuition usually cost?

Tuition varies widely from school to school, but the College Board has helpful national data. Here are the average tuition costs for different classifications of postsecondary schools (note that these figures don’t include fees or cost of living expenses):

Public two-year in-district: $3,520 per year

These are generally community colleges and technical colleges. “In-district” is an even more restrictive residency requirement than in-state. It means that you’re local to a specific county or region within a state.

Public four-year in-state: $9,650 per year

These are the colleges we’ve been talking about. Qualifications for in-state residents are different for every state, but we’ll talk about that later.

Public four-year out-of-state: $24,930 per year

If you’re looking at schools that aren’t in your state, this is your baseline tuition cost.

Private nonprofit four-year: $33,480 per year

These colleges are funded by private entities, so tuition is the same regardless of where you live.

Private for-profit: $16,000 per year

For-profit schools are pretty affordable regardless of where you live.

Every year, these averages go up by at least 2%.

Are for-profit colleges “the best deal”?

Since they don’t receive funding from tax dollars, private for-profit colleges charge a flat tuition rate for both in-state and out-of-state students—and often at prices that beat public universities. That can make them pretty appealing, but there are some things you should consider.

You can find great for-profit colleges out there that deliver a competitive education with the accreditation to back that up. There are also a lot of really bad ones that will take your money and give you an education you could’ve gotten on Google.

The price tag on a for-profit college might catch your eye, but be sure you use your eyes to research the reputation and quality of the school before you commit. If it’s not going to give you credentials employers respect or an education you can use, it’s like finding a good deal on anchovy pineapple pizza. Nobody should ever want that.

And if you put an anchovy pineapple pizza on your resume, it will make a terrible impression.

Depending on what you want to do though, a private college of some kind may be the best route to go. Any religious postsecondary school, for example, is almost always going to be private because:

  1. They can’t receive public funding from taxes.
  2. They can set their own degree criteria, curriculum, and requirements for students.

Some exceptional trade schools are private, too. Say you want to enroll in one of the best culinary arts programs in the country. You’re going to be more interested in what you’re learning and who you’re learning from than who accredited the school.

If you’re looking for a specific kind of education like that, a private for-profit school is a perfectly acceptable option. You just have to know what you’re getting into.

How do you qualify for in-state tuition?

Obviously, your education at a state-funded university is going to cost you a lot less if you can demonstrate that you live in-state. But knowing what “counts” is a little tricky: it’s different for every state, and even schools in the same state might have slightly different qualifications.

If you have to move to another state to go to school, you should expect to at least pay out-of-state tuition for your first year. Once you can prove that you’ve lived there for a year though, some schools will let you become eligible for in-state tuition. But what counts as “proof” also varies.

When it comes down to it, you’ll need to look at residency requirements on a school-by-school basis. Every school should have this information on the tuition page of their website.

But even if you’re not a state resident, you might not have to pay the full out-of-state tuition rate. 45 states are part of “regional tuition discount programs” also known as reciprocity programs or tuition exchanges.

What are reciprocity programs?

If your state is part of a reciprocity program, it means that you can go to some out-of-state public schools without paying the full out-of-state tuition. It’s a partnership between states, but not all public schools participate in their state’s reciprocity programs. Again, you’ll have to talk to your school, but this might not be something you can find on the website—start with the admissions department.

Many states have smaller reciprocity programs, but here are the four main ones:

Academic Common Market

Participating states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Tuition Break

Participating states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Midwest Student Exchange Program

Participating states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin

Western Undergraduate Exchange

Participating states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and the US Pacific Territories and Freely Associated States.

In most cases, these discounts aren’t going to knock your tuition cost down to in-state rates—they’ll usually reduce it to 150% of the in-state rate—but it’s worth asking your admissions office if they participate in any reciprocity or tuition exchange programs.

How does where you live affect online tuition costs?

You might be surprised to know that even online students often have to pay out-of-state tuition. Which is a bummer, because you didn’t even “go” out-of-state. But the principle is still the same: in exchange for state tax funding, public colleges and universities offer discounted prices to state residents.

And if crossing the border doesn’t make you a state resident, digitally crossing the border definitely doesn’t.

That said, not all public universities make out-of-state online students pay out-of-state rates. Online students don’t cost colleges the same amount of resources—you aren’t taking up space in their buildings and using their facilities, after all. Sometimes a school will offer a special discounted rate for online students, or they may just charge the in-state rate, regardless of where you live.

Should I go to an in-state college?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of good reasons to go to an out-of-state school. Here are just a few:

In-state schools might not have the program you want

Maybe you’re looking for a specific degree program, and your state doesn’t have one of the best. An out-of-state school might have a more reputable faculty that’s won awards or had more influence on the industry. Another school might have built-in internships to help you transition into a career, or maybe they have a better job placement rate. Or more interesting classes. Or a better alumni association with better networking opportunities.

Those are all things that could tip the scale in favor of an out-of-state school. But even if cost is the biggest factor to you, there’s more to consider.

In-state schools aren’t always more affordable

Some schools’ out-of-state tuition costs are actually lower than other schools’ in-state tuition costs! So you shouldn’t cross all the out-of-state schools off your list.

Of course, tuition isn’t the only expense to consider, either. If you don’t have to move to go to school, that can significantly cut down on costs—especially if *gasp* you live with your parents! If you’re choosing a school based on your bank account, keep in mind that cost of living can be as much or more as your tuition.

So if you’re looking at an in-state school in a big city, an out-of-state school in a small town may cost less, even if its tuition is higher.

And it would be a shame to rule out an out-of-state school on tuition alone before you’d even considered their scholarship opportunities. Some schools may have a high sticker price but liberally hand out financial aid.

“Out-of-state” doesn’t have to be permanent

What if you only have to pay out-of-state tuition for one year? Your second, third, fourth, and umpteenth years at an out-of-state school could cost significantly less. Putting in the work to apply for in-state residency could save you thousands of dollars ($15,000 per year on average).

And that’s assuming you aren’t planning ahead. If you already have your heart set on an out-of-state school, you might want to consider moving there with enough time to become a resident. Obviously, you should look at the residency requirements for the specific state to decide if it’s doable.

A “gap year” doesn’t have to feel like a waste, either. There are some great jobs out there that don’t require a college degree. You could also get an internship, or see if your school has free classes or programs to get a feel for what it’s like to be a student there.

College is an experience

When you pay for college, you’re paying for an education. But going to college isn’t just a financial transaction for an academic experience.

Every college has clubs, organizations, and extracurricular activities you can participate in, but going to college out-of-state gives you a chance to explore new parts of the country and experience the unique cultures that come from there.

If you’re fresh out of high school, a huge part of the college experience is learning how to be independent. It’s hard to make the most of college if you live with your parents and hang out with the same people and do all of the same things.

Of course, if you have a career, a family, or other commitments rooting you to your local community, this may not be a big factor for you. That’s OK, too.

The reality is that only you can decide what the best choice for you is. We hope this post gave you everything you needed to know about in-state and out-of-state tuition. Feel free to ask questions if you have them.

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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