Explore Scholarships to Make Public Universities Affordable

Take advantage of scholarships and state residency to lower the cost of attending a public university.

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Reciprocity programs allow students the flexibility of attending public college in a participating neighboring state for reduced tuition.
Reciprocity programs allow students the flexibility of attending public college in a participating neighboring state for reduced tuition.

Choosing between a public and private school is one of the most significant and personal decisions facing prospective college students.

Do you want your college experience to center on a big, vibrant public campus, with a giant football stadium and wide selection of majors? Or do you like the appeal of a small, pleasant private institution, with more personal classes and a tight-knit community?

Whichever option fits your dreams, you'll also have to think about the reality of paying for college. And just as there are stereotypes of the public and private college experiences, there are also stereotypes about the costs.

Many assume that public schools are cheap and private schools are expensive. On the surface, these stereotypes ring true.

[Check out the 10 schools with the cheapest out-of-state tuition.]

According to the College Board, the average cost of attendance for a private four-year college including tuition, fees, books and room and board is just under $40,000 per year. This compares with an average cost of around $18,000 for in-state students attending a public university.

But that's not the whole story. There are a few factors that can make a big difference in cost, including residency, financial aid, a school's endowment and scholarship options.

While public colleges and universities do feature a lower sticker price and cost of attendance than private schools, there's a hidden facet to the savings: residency requirements. That $18,000 cost for state residents jumps to an average of $31,000 for students who live outside the state, putting total costs closer to a private school bill.

[Learn which schools have the most expensive out-of-state tuition.]

If your dream college is an out-of-state public school, there are ways to deal with the difference. I grew up in South Dakota and attended the University of Minnesota. I was able to pay in-state tuition rates thanks to a reciprocity agreement between the two states, in which South Dakota and Minnesota residents could attend colleges in either state for the lower in-state price.

Many states have similar compacts with their neighbors, and they can take a big chunk out of your tuition. The Western Undergraduate Exchange allows students from 15 states to attend colleges throughout the exchange for reduced tuition.

There are also a few scholarships out there designed just for students at public colleges. These are also frequently state-based.

[Find out how to get in-state tuition at out-of-state colleges.]

In Texas, the College For All Texans initiative features a Top 10 Percent Scholarship Program. Through this program, any incoming or continuing college students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class and who attend a public college or university in Texas are eligible to receive $2,000 per year.

That amount doubles if you're an upperclassman studying in a "shortage field," which includes teaching, nursing or a STEM major.

In North Carolina, the People Helping People scholarship, funded by the State Employees' Credit Union, offers generous awards to one graduating senior from each of the state's public and charter high schools. Established in 2004, this renewable scholarship awards $1,250 per semester for up to eight semesters – a total of $10,000 over four years.

The scholarship is open to applicants who plan to attend a public university in North Carolina, and you can see a few recent winners online. Plan to contact your high school counselor in January if you're interested in applying.

If you are among the approximately 8,300 students to be named a National Merit scholar, you should also take a look at public institutions. Many Ivy League and elite private schools do not offer National Merit awards with university money, but quite a few public schools still do.

Finally, students should check out the higher education offices in their state and those where they are considering attending college.

A public university education can be a great experience, especially if you take steps to make sure it's also a great value.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.