Knowing college residency rules can save you money

February 4, 2011

A student walks across the campus of Columbia University in New York, October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mike SegarThe following article is by Marla Brill, a guest contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.

At first glance, it seemed like a good idea.

My daughter, now a college sophomore, is exploring the possibility of going to a public graduate school across the country. Since the university she’s considering requires a year of residency for in-state tuition rates, she reasoned she would qualify for the lower rate after her first year as a student.

As it turns out, that’s likely wishful thinking.

As colleges look for ways to raise revenue to fill the gap left by state budget cuts, higher non-resident tuition rates have become an increasingly critical component of their funding. With non-resident annual tuition often $15,000 or more above the price tag for residents, the stakes are high for both students and their prospective alma maters.

To be recognized as more than a visitor, students  — or parents of dependent minors — must generally be legal residents of a state for at least a year before registration or other date specified by the school. When students or parents have long-term roots, verifying residency and getting in-state tuition is a fairly simple matter. But in many situations, the standards that define one’s “home” are far from clear-cut. Those standards often vary significantly among states, and even among public institutions in the same state.

“There’s a lot of nitty-gritty in state statutes, and you need to read them carefully,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb websites.  “Not following the rules can mean costly mistakes.”

One student, he recalls, studied abroad as part of an international baccalaureate program during his senior year in high school. But because his state required graduation from a high school at home to qualify for resident tuition, he missed out on thousands of dollars in tuition savings.

Here a number of other common issues the college will likely examine:

Why are you here?
Even if you’ve lived somewhere for the requisite residency period, schools may still view you as an outsider if they determine you’re there mainly to attend classes.  After all, they reason, long-time, taxpaying residents shouldn’t have to foot the bill for people just passing through.

Evidence such as a driver license, vehicle registration, bank accounts, property tax receipts or payments of state and local income tax on wages will strengthen the case that you’ve put down roots. But they may not be enough.

The skeptical view of newcomers common in many states is reflected by the University of Vermont policy, which stipulates that an applicant who becomes a student within one year of first moving to the state creates a “rebuttable presumption” that the purpose of the relocation was to attend UVM and acquire in-state tuition status.

“Someone who is employed full-time and taking a single course is more likely to be here for non-educational purposes than someone with a full course load who’s working a few hours a week,” says UVM residency officer Karen Smith.  “The gray area falls in-between those two situations.”

Once you’ve started college as a non-resident, changing to resident status can be even more difficult.

“It’s very unusual for us to reclassify non-resident students as residents once they begin attending school,” says William Haltiwanger, residency classification officer at the University of Arizona. Appealing a negative decision, he says, rarely results in a different verdict.

Trying to “get a read” probably won’t work, either. Although prospective students often call before applying to see if they qualify for resident tuition, Smith warns tersely that the university “does not make predictions based on phone conversations.”

On the other hand, newcomers can sometimes be surprised to learn that they don’t have to be in state very long to qualify for in-state tuition. Some states waive the minimum residency period for dependent children of parents who’ve recently relocated, and even more do so for active members of the military and their families.

Parents living in separate states.
In some states, dependent students of divorced or separated parents are viewed as residents if either parent resides there. In others, residency follows the parent who provides the majority of financial support for a child even if the child lives elsewhere.

Parents who have moved out of state.
Dependent, full-time students who stay put after their parents move often retain in-state status if they stay in school.  But some states require students to maintain a residence to keep that privilege, while others approve in-state tuition for only a limited time after parents leave.

Marriage.
Most states grant in-state status to anyone whose spouse is entitled to in-state classification.  But tying the knot doesn’t tie you to states such as Iowa or Vermont, which determine the residency status of each spouse independently.

Straddling states.
You’re much less likely to be viewed as a permanent resident in one state if you also have ties to another. The more allegiance to one place you can show, the better.

To plan ahead, you can view residency guidelines at most public college and university websites. You can also find summaries and links to information on state residency requirements for all 50 states at  Collegeboard.org and Finaid.org.

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