Can tuition exchange discounts slash out-of-state costs?

Piggy bank

If you're planning to head out of state for your degree, there may be a quick way to knock thousands off your tuition bill. Academic reciprocation agreements, also called tuition exchange programs, allow students from one state or school to attend another institution at a significantly reduced rate. Unlike many scholarship and grant programs, reciprocation agreements aren't need-based, meaning that they're available to any student who meets the eligibility requirements, regardless of the student's income. Like other financial aid programs, reciprocation agreements often come with strict eligibility requirements and may only be available to a limited number of students. Here's what you need to know to save.

School consortiums offer more classes

Tuition exchange programs come in two flavors: agreements between individual schools and agreements between states. Sometimes called a consortium, agreements between schools offer students on one campus the ability to take classes and participate in student events at a sister institution, in most cases without paying any extra tuition.

Peter Osgood, director of admission for Harvey Mudd College in California, says that his school's consortium connections with four neighboring undergraduate institutions provide students with the academic resources of a larger school, but the feel of a small college. Harvey Mudd only enrolls about 800 students, but combined with the resources of the Claremont University Consortium, "a student would have conceivably about 2,500 courses to choose from in a year," Osgood says.

The Atlanta University Center Consortium in Georgia and the Five College Consortium in western Massachusetts operate similar reciprocation agreements.

How do state exchanges work?

State tuition exchange programs are much more complex. There are currently four major state agreements: the Midwest Student Exchange Program; the Western Undergraduate Exchange; Tuition Break, which serves New England; and the Academic Common Market, which serves Southern states. All offer eligible students the chance to attend a public college in a member state at a discounted rate, ranging from a few thousand to several thousand dollars.

Programs like the Western Undergraduate Exchange, a reciprocation agreement between 15 western states and the Commonwealth of North Mariana Islands, "help the receiving institutions diversify their student enrollment and fill unused seats," says Margo Colalancia, director of Student Exchange Programs of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the organization that oversees the Western Undergraduate Exchange. Under the Exchange, students can attend an out of state public school for 150 percent of the in-state price, a savings of about $7,800 per year on average. 

The catch for all four state agreements is that students have to qualify, and eligibility requirements often come with some serious red tape. WUE is open to students in any major, but the Academic Common Market, which serves 16 southern states, and Tuition Break, which serves six New England states, are only open to those pursuing a degree program that is not available through a public college in their home state. This means that undeclared students won't be eligible yet and those who start in an agreement-approved degree program but change majors later could lose their discount. Wendy Lindsay, the New England Board of Higher Education senior director who oversees Tuition Break, adds has a proximity clause that provides a discount to border students who live closer to an out-of-state school than an in-state one.

Qualifying for a tuition exchange program

On top of meeting state-mandated eligibility requirements, students might also need to meet those set forth by their schools. Even if two states are part of a tuition exchange program, it's up to the individual colleges and universities to determine how many discounted spots they'll offer, if there are any GPA or test score strings attached and whether they'll designate those slots for majors with lower enrollment.

"[A school] may say, 'The business program, we're at capacity there, but we'd really like to recruit more students in engineering,'" says Jennifer Dahlquist, vice president and Chief Financial Officer of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, the organization that oversees the Midwest Student Exchange Program. "... Institutions also can limit the number of [reciprocation] students they want to admit."

In addition, schools have the right to reserve reciprocation discounts for upperclassmen. In those cases, entering students would either need to pay the full out-of-state rate for their first few years of school, or start their college tenure at an in-state institution and transfer, according to Wendy Lindsay. The risk with transferring is losing credits in the process. If you think using a reciprocation agreement may require you to attend two institutions, do some research on which courses will count at both schools.

"Some schools have clear transfer articulation agreements," Lindsay says, "but that's not true for all schools."

Taking the first step

Even with the red tape, reciprocation agreements can be a strong bet for starving students. They're one of the few aid programs not based on financial need, academic achievement or extracurricular accomplishments. They're open to students of any age, and, in most cases, tuition exchange discounts are automatically renewable every year of enrollment. If you think you might qualify for a tuition exchange program, head to the website of the agreement that's closest to your college of choice to read up on eligibility requirements and deadlines, Margo Colalancia says.

Sources:

Claremont University Consortium: http://www.cuc.claremont.edu/

Atlanta University Center Consortium: http://www.aucenter.edu/about_overview.php

Five College Consortium: https://www.fivecolleges.edu/

Western Undergrad Exchange info: http://www.wiche.edu/wue

Midwest Student Exchange info: http://msep.mhec.org/

Tuition Break info: http://www.nebhe.org/programs-overview/rsp-tuition-break/overview/

Academic Common Market info: http://www.sreb.org/page/1304/academic_common_market.html

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