Taking a gap year to establish residency can help students save thousands in out-of-state tuition fees.

Get In-State Tuition at Out-of-State Colleges

Taking a gap year to establish residency in a state can save students thousands of dollars on tuition.

Taking a gap year to establish residency can help students save thousands in out-of-state tuition fees.

Students can save thousands off out-of-state tuition by establishing residency or participating in a regional exchange program.

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In the college decision-making process, cost is key.

Roughly 43 percent of incoming freshmen cited cost of attendance as a "very important" factor in their final college selection, according to an annual report by the University of California—Los Angeles.

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Cost-conscious students often view state colleges as the least expensive route, and generally, that is true. In-state tuition at public universities was about $10,000 less than out-of-state tuition for the 2012-2013 school year, according to tuition data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey.

But there are ways for students to save thousands of tuition dollars without being confined to their home state, says financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

Schools make many kinds of exceptions, he says. "If your parents are in the military, but you are out of state, sometimes they will waive residency requirements. Sometimes if parents are policemen or firemen, they waive it. Sometimes there are exceptions for teachers."

Colleges may also have flexible residency requirements for students who live near state lines and want to cross over for college, Kantrowitz says.

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Students can also take a gap year and relocate to establish residency in the state where they want to attend college. Having your mail sent to an aunt's place in Sacramento and snagging a California driver's license won't cut it. Applying to a college exactly one year after you move to a state will also raise red flags, warns Kantrowitz.

"Many of these colleges are very aggressive in denying people who qualify for it just by manipulating the situation," he says.

To improve their odds of getting resident tuition, students should build up a lengthy paper trail, he says.

"Pay state income taxes, get a library card, register your car in the state, register to vote. Do all of the above, so there isn't anything to suggest you have ties to the other state."

Going through the effort doesn't guarantee eligibility for in-state tuition, says Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment at the University of Arkansas.

The university considers students younger than 23 legally dependent on their parents. So even if they move to Arkansas, work, pay taxes and become residents of the state, they will still pay out-of-state tuition if their parents live in another state, she says. Students can petition to be considered independent, but doing so is "very difficult."

"I would recommend that any student planning to attend a university and think they would be reclassified to get on the website and review it very carefully before they pick up and move," McCray says.

Cost-conscious students can avoid the residency hassle altogether if they are itching to attend school in the Pacific Northwest – specifically, at Eastern Oregon University, where there is no such thing as out-of-state tuition. The regional university sets tuition at $7,046 for all students, regardless of residency.

Following in a parent's footsteps can also net tuition benefits. Northwestern Oklahoma State University, for example, waives nonresident fees for children of alumni. Students who prefer to blaze their own trails can qualify for in-state at some universities if they have strong academic credentials.

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At Texas A&M University, non-Texans who earn a competitive scholarship of at least $1,000 also qualify for in-state tuition rates. The University of Arkansas also waives a portion of out-of-state fees for some scholarship winners, McCray says.

This "New Arkansan" award is also available for students from neighboring states who excel academically. Students from neighboring states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma – who achieve at least a 3.25 GPA and an ACT score of 24 (1090 for the SAT) can get up 80 to 90 percent off nonresident tuition.

Exchange programs are also a way to save. While they don't waive nonresident fees entirely, these regional networks give qualifying students a steep tuition break.