Many people mistakenly believe that their in-state public colleges are the only public college option available to their student. In fact, there are many, many public options available, often at the same or lower cost than remaining in state. Typically, for an out of state school to make sense, they need to offer some form of either scholarship or tuition reciprocity, and fortunately many do.

Most, if not all, geographies offer some form of regional tuition exchange. In such a program, students within the region can attend other states’ schools within the region for a slight premium above in-state tuition. Some of the bigger regional tuition exchanges include:

Not every public college or university within the region participates in these programs; typically flagship schools do not. However, due to pandemic-related lower enrollments this year a number of schools have joined or re-joined the program. Here in the West, those include Oregon State, Arizona State, and University of Arizona. The programs are often highly competitive and some schools restrict admission to specific majors, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them early to see which schools might be fits. Here in Oregon, we find two big advantages to the WUE program: many WUE schools are actually cheaper than our in-state public schools due to lower baseline tuition, and while we have big public universities like University of Oregon and Oregon State and small ones like Southern Oregon University, we don’t have any medium-sized schools– but we have access to our neighbors’.

Plenty of other public universities offer excellent merit awards which can bring the cost of attendance down to the same or less than remaining in state. My son, for example, attends the University of Arizona for the same price we would pay for him to attend the University of Oregon. Better still, many of these merit grants are automatic for incoming freshmen with GPAs and test scores above a certain level, and they publish these awards on their websites. Some awards are pretty aggressive: the University of Alabama offers full scholarships including tuition, room and board, and a stipend for books and research, to National Merit Scholarship finalists.

So if you’re looking for a public school budget and experience, don’t assume that you’re limited to your own state’s options.