When trying to figure out how to pay for college, your priority should be to figure out how to maximize the money you do have available. In other words, get the most college for the least amount of money as possible. Your public state university is the obvious choice since based on sticker price alone, public schools are cheaper than private schools for in-state residents. But did you know that there’s the possibility you can get similar discounts to schools outside of your state?

Depending on where you live, there may be more affordable out-of-state schools for you to consider than you realize. It has to do with little known options through regional tuition discount programs. Yeah, the term doesn’t exactly lend itself to a slick marketing campaign. Ultimately, I think The Southern Regional Education Board has the best name for marketing purposes, Academic Common Market.  But no matter the actual name, given the costs of college it’s worth your time to investigate the opportunities for your state.


Academic Free Trade Zones

The basic premise of a regional tuition discount program is that a group of states decide to allow residents from other states to attend their institutions in exchange for their students having the chance to enroll in other states’ universities. These are generally limited to public institutions but not always.

Why would states do this? Not all states can provide every possible major within their college and university system. So it is a way to share resources. Not every state has to have a program in Aerospace Engineering. States can focus on strengthening their specialties while allowing students to benefit from other states resources as necessary.

It’s also a good way to attract students to new campuses and programs. States can use them to help keep talent close to home. This can be especially true of states that have specific agreements for institutions close to state lines.

There are four major regional tuitional discount programs. Each has their own rules for participation.

New England Board of Higher Education
Midwest Student Exchange Program
Western Undergraduate Exchange
Academic Common Market


How do they work?

A key component to all of these programs is the student’s major. The student’s home state isn’t likely to send a student to another state to study aerospace engineering if it has a perfectly good aerospace program at one of its own universities. However, the New England Board of Higher Education does have an option for those where the out-of-state university is actually close to the student’s location than the student’s in-state option.

Another limiting factor in these programs is that not all of the states’ universities may participate. For example, in the Midwest Interstate Commission for Higher Education program, only Ferris State University is available through the program. Nor are students outside of California in the Western Undergraduate Exchange going to find a low-cost option for UC Berkeley or UCLA.

Then there is the case of Texas which only participates in the Academic Common Market at the graduate level. The state believes that it offers all necessary majors at the undergraduate level. And it really has no incentive to try to convince non-residents to attend Texas colleges and contribute to its state’s population growth.

But this still leaves a lot of alternatives and potential bargains for students depending on their major. The following lists just some of the majors approved by the state of Arkansas:

Intelligence and National Security Studies at Coastal Carolina
Recreational and Tourism Management at Concord University, WV
Digital Media at East Tennessee State University
Occupational Therapy at Eastern Kentucky University
Environmental Engineering at Louisiana State University
Aerospace Engineering at Mississippi State University


Program Limitations

Of course, there are limitations. The biggest one is that generally if you change your major, you end up paying the regular out-of-state tuition. These programs aren’t for students who can’t decide between English and Computer Science.

Another problem is that participating colleges will often, understandably, limit the number of students they will take under these programs. This means that students need to keep on top of any relevant deadlines and apply as early as possible. Check with the appropriate state program office as well as the contact at the university you’re applying to.

So yes, there are limitations. But if you’re trying to expand your college options, why wouldn’t you at least take a look?

I hope this information helps you! However it’s only one part of a bigger system, The College MATCH Method.

Michelle K.