States are able to justify such discrepancies because their tax dollars are the main source of support for public universities, and policymakers feel they should be using that money to subsidize the education of students whose families are paying those taxes. In addition, out-of-state students are less likely to stay beyond graduation and contribute to the local economy.
In recent years, some regions have adapted and expanded the in-state model. For example, in the Midwest, states have forged reciprocal agreements to give out-of-state students a break on tuition at participating institutions, from community colleges to research universities offering doctoral degrees.
The Midwest Student Exchange Program allows residents of nine states—Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin—to study at participating public institutions in other member states for no more than 150 percent of the cost of in-state tuition. Some private schools are also among the program's 150-plus institutions, giving students a 10 percent discount on tuition.
[See U.S. News's rankings of the top public universities.]
Get your degree early: The most surefire way to save money is to finish college ahead of schedule. A handful of schools offer formal three-year bachelor's degrees, while many more grant credit for high scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, has offered a three-year bachelor's since 1965. Though only a few students choose this route each year, it remains an appealing option for some highly motivated and focused undergrads.
The AP and IB programs are widely recognized for providing a challenging pre-college experience, and high scores on their exams can also enable students to earn valuable college credits. All eight Ivy League universities permit students to apply for and receive "advanced standing," which allows them to graduate a semester or year early.
Students at Harvard University who have earned a 5—the highest possible score—on at least four yearlong AP courses can petition for advanced standing. Harvard students can also graduate ahead of schedule if they have earned the maximum score on three or more higher-level IB exams, or they can stick around to earn a master's degree in certain fields during their fourth year on campus.
Some of the more selective institutions outside the Ivy League, however, don't offer any credit for top scores on AP or IB exams, even though they like to see these courses on applicants' transcripts. Williams College in Massachusetts, for instance, permits students with superior scores to place out of certain introductory-level courses, but they still must complete eight semesters of full-time study just like any other student.
[Consider studying abroad to save money on college.]
Start in high school: "Dual enrollment" is another, if lesser known, way to save money on college. The basic idea is for high school students to take college-level courses that can count first toward their diploma and, later, toward their college degree. Often, through agreements with local institutions, these courses are taught on high school campuses by high school teachers. The material, however, is meant to be on par with what's taught at college.