Updated 10/31/11: Statistics in this story have been updated to reflect the 2011-2012 school year.
The hype about colleges' heightened admissions standards and skyrocketing tuition in crowded and financially troubled states such as California may be drowning out the surprising reality that many affordable public colleges in less populated areas are eager for students and are willing to cut good deals. Some schools are even willing to extend their generosity to less-than-stellar students.
U.S. News has identified several public universities that waive out-of-state surcharges for many or, in some cases, all qualified out-of-state students.
At some of these colleges, the in-state tuition is so low that the total annual cost of attendance, including extra travel expenses for out-of-staters, is below $15,000. That means it can be cheaper for some students to attend schools out of state.
Many public universities in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California, for example, have total sticker prices in excess of $20,000 for local residents. Many of the bargain schools also award extra scholarships to better-qualified students, bringing their costs down even further.
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Of course, there are reasons these colleges are trying to attract out-of-staters. They are usually in states such as North Dakota, Kansas, and Louisiana that are seeing declines in the numbers of local teenagers. Often, they are in rural, remote areas such as northwest Oklahoma or eastern Oregon. And generally, these colleges rank poorly compared with more in-demand, and thus more expensive, colleges.
Many of the top public universities, such as the University of Michigan (ranked 28th among National Universities by U.S. News) and the University of Vermont (ranked 82nd among National Universities by U.S. News) are such hot tickets that there are lots of well-qualified out-of-staters willing to pay their total out-of-state costs of more than $40,000 a year. Well-ranked public universities typically offer scholarships or tuition discounts to out-of-state students only if they have top grades and test scores or special athletic, musical, or other skills.
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These schools usually have strict rules to prevent out-of-state students from establishing residence and qualifying for lower tuition. They generally grant in-state status only to students who have graduated from an in-state high school or whose parents live in the state, or to adult students who have worked and lived in the state for at least a year and prove their residency by doing such things as voting locally, getting a state driver's license, and paying state taxes. Finaid.org has a list of links to each state's rules.
College officials say that determined out-of-staters have in some cases been able to qualify for in-state tuition, even in strict states such as California, by moving to the state at least a year ahead of time and, for example, taking a job and paying state income taxes, or buying a house near the school to establish residency and reduce dorm costs.
But some states and colleges are so eager to attract out-of-staters that they are making it easy for students to qualify for in-state tuition.
Easiest of all is Eastern Oregon University, which doesn't charge out-of-state tuition at all. Both in-state and out-of-state tuition at that school costs $6,639.
The University of Alaska charges in-state tuition to any admitted student whose parent has invested in Alaska's 529 college savings plan. Parents in any state can buy shares of University of Alaska tuition at today's in-state rates. The school's in-state tuition at the Anchorage campus for 2011-2012 is $6,296; for out-of-state students, it's $17,936.