In-State vs. Out-of-State Colleges: Where Should I Go?

When making a college list, students must decide whether to stay closer to home or attend a school in a neighboring state or different part of the country.

While cost is often the deciding factor, private schools are not the only option for students considering a move out of state. There are also many public colleges to choose from.

“Never discount the idea of a state university,” says Kathi Moody, president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling and department head of school counseling at Lynnfield High School in Massachusetts. “There can be an assumption that a state university is not as strong and it doesn’t have as good of programs as a private school. But you can find a lot of great resources, opportunities, academic programs, honors programs and internship programs.”

If you are thinking about attending a college out of state, consider the following factors:

— Cost of attendance.

— Enrollment size.

— Distance from hometown.

— Available programs of study.

[Read: The Cost of Private vs. Public Colleges.]

Cost of Attendance

For some students, private or out-of-state public colleges may feel out of reach given their higher tuition prices. The average cost of in-state tuition and fees at a ranked public college is about $10,000, compared with about $23,000 for out-of-state students, according to U.S. News data. And tuition at a ranked private college is on average almost four times the price of attending a public school in state — teetering around $39,000.

Although the sticker price for in-state students may look lower, there are opportunities for financial assistance at private schools and at public schools out of state.

Regional tuition exchange programs, for instance, allow out-of-state students at a public college to qualify for tuition at a reduced rate. Larger regional programs include the Academic Common Market in the South, the Midwest Student Exchange Program, the New England Regional Student Program and the Western Undergraduate Exchange.

Under the Midwest Student Exchange Program, public institutions in Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin charge out-of-state students in specific programs no more than 150% of the in-state resident tuition rate.

“It takes a little bit more work on the family’s part, but really sit down and (figure) out the numbers,” Moody says. “And I think some students are surprised sometimes at how close they can get to whatever their in-state rate is with some out-of-state schools.”

As for private colleges, some — including many Ivy League schools — meet students’ full demonstrated need. For the 2022-2023 academic year, families with annual incomes below $75,000 at Harvard University in Massachusetts, for instance, are not expected to contribute to the cost of their student’s attendance.

After filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, students may also qualify for various types of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, federal or private loans, federal work-study and other programs. A survey of private, nonprofit colleges and universities by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that nearly 83% of all undergraduates at those schools received institutional scholarships or grants in 2021-2022.

“Families and students see the sticker price and think there is no way that they can afford to pay $80,000 a year for college, which is completely valid. However, this is often not the price that the majority of students are going to be paying,” says Lindsay Greco, an independent educational consultant with Savannah Educational Consultants. “Don’t count anything out right away because of cost.”

Enrollment Size

Beyond cost, another difference between a private and public college is enrollment size. Although it varies, public colleges tend to be larger: Total undergraduate enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin is around 40,000, for instance, while the number of undergraduate students attending Rice University in Texas totals around 4,000.

Smaller colleges typically boast a lower student-faculty ratio, while bigger colleges commonly offer classes in lecture halls designed for hundreds of students.

Consider the environment, Greco says. “Do you want a larger public research university or are you looking for something that is a bit smaller?”

[READ: How to Choose Between Urban, Suburban and Rural Colleges.]

Distance From Hometown

Depending on the student, the distance to a college from home can make or break the decision. So can weather patterns or geographical features in a state — a student may prefer being close to mountains or the ocean.

A common misconception about enrolling at a college close to home, for instance, is that you’ll know lots of people in attendance. But that’s not always the case since these schools are generally large, Greco says.

Keep in mind whether you want to be within driving distance or a plane ride away.

“Some students are looking to get as far away from mom and dad to sort of spread their wings, and others are looking to stay home because they know they have some responsibilities,” says Joseph Miller, college consultant at Comprehensive College Check and past treasurer of the Texas Association for College Admission Counseling.

Available Programs of Study

Not all students go into college knowing what their area of study will be. But for those who do, academic programs at a school may play a role in the final decision about where to attend. The list of academic programs is not the same at every college, so experts suggest prospective students do their research.

Some colleges might be well known for business — with co-op or internship opportunities and abundant class options related to finance or accounting — while others emphasize engineering. Even certain regions of the country can make a difference for some academic majors.

“When I lived in Albuquerque, some students wanted to study marine biology,” Miller says. “And while you can study marine biology on the Rio Grande river, it’s different from studying it on the oceans or coasts.”

[Read: U.S. News Guide to College Majors.]

How to Narrow Down Your College List

Before researching both in-state and out-of-state colleges, create a list of must-haves and consider factors like lifestyle and career goals, experts say. Then use a tool like the College Navigator to find colleges that align with your criteria.

“Fit is so much more important than the name,” Moody says. “Find a place where you can grow and be challenged. But also where you feel comfortable and can learn more about yourself.”

Visiting schools is key, experts say. Tour colleges with varying enrollment sizes and locations, including in both cities and suburbs, close to home and further away. If an in-person tour is out of the question, given cost barriers and distance, many schools offer either live or pre-recorded virtual options.

Some high schools also host representatives of colleges from around the country to provide more information and answer students’ questions. Additionally, prospective students can connect over social media with current college students to gain insight into the school’s campus culture.

Once you’re down to a few colleges, make a pros and cons list. Greco suggests writing positive attributes in green and negative ones in red.

“When you do the red and the green, the choice typically becomes overwhelmingly clear. One school is going to be almost all green and the rest are going to have a large percentage of red,” she says. “What’s good for one student is not necessarily good for another. You really do get a gut feeling on what feels right or not.”

More from U.S. News

15 Colleges With Affordable Out-of-State Tuition

10 Financial Aid Tips for College Students

An Ultimate Guide to Understanding College Financial Aid

In-State vs. Out-of-State Colleges: Where Should I Go? originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up