Public Colleges Can Offer Great Deals

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Students with diplomasPublic colleges can offer great deals compared to private colleges. When you are a college search family “caught in the middle” who won’t qualify for need-based aid, but don’t have enough to pay full price at an expensive school for four years, take a look at the public college options, both in your state and beyond. You may find your most affordable option among these.

In-State Public Colleges

All states have public universities that are typically less expensive for state residents. These range from flagship universities, that we will talk about more in the next section, to smaller regional campuses. Of course the perceived quality of in-state public colleges varies from state to state.

How will you know if the public colleges in your state are worth looking at?

You can research a variety of information related to each public college in your state. Some of the important things to look into are:

  • School Size – How big is the enrollment on campus? Is it a huge school, a medium school, or a small school?
  • Graduation Rate – I always use the 4-year graduation rate when I research graduation rates as I would hope my student would be able to get out in 4 years! A 4-year graduation rate of 50% or higher is ideal.
  • Acceptance Rate – Does the school accept every student who applies or is it at least somewhat selective?
  • Mid-50% ACT/SAT scores – Where do the majority of incoming students fall? How does your student compare?
  • Average High School GPA – What’s the median GPA for incoming freshmen and how does your student compare?
  • Percent of Part-Time Students – Does it tend to be more of a commuter school or are the majority of students attending full time?
  • Average Age of Students – Do students attend the school right after high school or does it attract more older students?
  • Percent of In-State Freshmen – Does the school attract out-of-state students or is it a campus full of in-state students?
  • Freshman Retention Rate – How likely are students to come back right away for a second year?
  • College Ranking Lists – Where does this school fall on the major college ranking lists? I do not place much stock in only looking at one list, but I like to check a school across at least 3 of the major lists to see if there’s a pattern.

How will you find the data listed above? Well, for all the bullets except the last one, I recommend two data sources. One is free, the other is not (but it will save you a ton of time creating a college list).

1. – This is my favorite website for doing a college search. Go to the College Match section of the site to do any type of college search. Based on what we are talking about here, I will use an example of searching for all public colleges in Alabama.

  • Under Match by Preferences, choose your State
  • Then choose “Public” under Size, Gender, Institution Type
  • For Alabama, I had 14 results:

Alabama Public Colleges

From the search results view, you can see some good basic information. Some of the data points I mentioned above are listed here including Size, Retention Rate (aka Freshman Satisfaction) and Graduation Rate. Unfortunately, this data cannot be easily exported into a spreadsheet. You would need to copy it over on your own.

From this view, if you want to see more data points on a school, click on the College Name. This takes you to the Overview tab for the school. Here you will find Admissions Rate, Average GPA, Mid-50% ACT and SAT scores and more details on the cost of attendance.

On the Students tab, you can see how many of the undergraduates attend full time and the average student age. does a great job getting us most of the data points I listed above. There’s another tool that I think is even better.

2. DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet – This is a paid tool that goes above and beyond what you can get on For $42 and free updated versions for one year, you can use this as your working college search spreadsheet. It covers all the data points I listed out above and so much more. You can sort and filter any columns to narrow in on the colleges that fit your desired criteria.

So what about rankings? How will you find those? I recommend using the Forbes Top Colleges list and the Money’s Best Colleges list. Additionally, and as long as you don’t take their rankings as gospel, there’s also the “good old” U.S. News Best Colleges Ranking.

Another site that can be good to check for rankings and reviews is Niche.

Flagship Universities

What is a flagship university? It is usually the best known public university in a state. Often the first to be established, the largest and most selective public university, and the one that is most research-intensive.

The flagship university tends to be the most highly ranked in the state and also the most expensive.

Can you tell by looking at the list of Alabama public universities above which is the flagship?

Based on the definition data we can see above, it could be either Auburn University or University of Alabama. However, University of Alabama is definitely the flagship university in the state.

Flagship universities tend to offer the least merit aid of public colleges since they already attract plenty of students, both in state and out of state.

Out-of-State Public Colleges

Public colleges in other states have sticker prices for out-of-students that are usually a lot more than the in-state rate. It will be important to see what kind of deals are offered to out-of-state students. We will explore those in the next sections.

As mentioned above, flagship universities tend to offer the least merit aid, especially to out-of-state students.

How will you judge the quality of out-of-state public colleges?

Easy answer – the same way you judge in-state public colleges! See above for some data points to look at.

State and Regional Tuition Exchanges

Four main regions of the country have regional tuition exchanges where out-of-state students residing in the region will get discounted out-of-state tuition for colleges within the region. Here are the 4 major exchanges:

Midwest Student Exchange Program

New England Regional Student Program

Academic Common Market (South)

Western Undergraduate Exchange

Additionally, many states have specific reciprocity agreements with other states. A good example is Minnesota. The University of Minnesota offers the in-state tuition rate to students from North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Manitoba, Canada.

Tuition reciprocity agreements vary widely. You may be able to find these on a state-based website. If not, the best place to look is on the college’s websites.

There can also be some smaller reciprocity arrangements. In my state of Illinois, we participate in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, but that only covers specific colleges. In addition, we participate in University of Wisconsin – Platteville’s Tri-State Initiative (along with Iowa) that brings out-of-state tuition down to what many of our Illinois in-state schools charge. Illinois & Iowa residents pay 75% more than in-state students at this school while students from most other states pay more than double.

Out-of-State Tuition Waivers

It’s important to know the difference between tuition reciprocity and out-of-state tuition waivers. Out-of-state tuition waivers are usually merit-based scholarships to reduce the out-of-state portion of tuition or even waive it entirely so that the student pays the same as the in-state rate. These tend to be designated for students who are not from states eligible for a tuition reciprocity program.

In my database of merit scholarships offered by colleges around the U.S. there are 90 scholarships that consist of a partial to full out-of-state tuition Waiver or another amount plus an out-of-state tuition waiver.

Honors Colleges

If you have a top student, when you look at the mid-50% ACT/SAT scores and average freshman GPA at many public colleges, you may think they are a little low. You may worry about your student being far above the mid-50% range. That’s where honors colleges come in. Honors colleges were established to attract top students to public colleges. Many private colleges also have honors colleges or honors programs.

The honors college programs tend to be very writing and discussion-based and usually focus on the liberal arts. They seek out highly motivated students and often offer them the chance to live together also in honors housing. The classes tend to be smaller than the average class size on campus.

For top students, an honors college within a public college can be a more affordable alternative to a selective private college.

Merit Aid at Public Colleges

As I mentioned above, smaller public colleges tend to give more merit aid than flagship universities. You can check into the specific merit scholarships offered by each public college, either through the school’s website or a comprehensive tool like

You can also check how generous each school is with merit aid overall. The best way to look this up is through the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet I talked about above. You can filter down to see all public colleges, then sort by the % of merit aid offered to students without need.

By looking at both the actual “listed” scholarships for each college and the school’s generosity with merit aid, you can cover all the bases for finding great merit scholarships.

A general rule of thumb for all colleges is that your student’s best chances for merit scholarships will be at colleges where his or her ACT and/or SAT scores are above the school’s mid-50% range.

Public “Ivies”

Have you heard of public ivies?  The term comes from Richard Moll who wrote a book in 1985 titled, Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s best public undergraduate colleges and universities. He selected schools he thought offered an ivy-league quality education at a public university price. His original list included:

  • College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia)
  • Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
  • University of California (Berkeley)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Vermont (Burlington)
  • University of Virginia (Charlottesville)

And also listed the following runners up:

  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • New College of the University of South Florida (now New College of Florida)
  • Pennsylvania State University at University Park
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • State University of New York at Binghamton (also called Binghamton University)
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin–Madison

A later book called The Public Ivies: America’s Flagship Public Universities (2001) by Howard and Matthew Greene, expanded the list to 30 colleges. The additions were:

  • Rutgers University
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Florida
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Arizona
  • Indiana University
  • Michigan State University
  • The Ohio State University
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Minnesota

Most of these are also flagship universities.

Establishing Residency

One final discussion point related to out-of-state public colleges is establishing residency to save money on tuition. Residency requirements vary widely by state. You will want to check the college’s website for information on how to establish residency. In most cases, your out-of-state student will have to pay the out-of-state tuition rate for at least the first year, unless they are receiving an out-of-state tuition waiver.

Sometimes with waivers, the school will only waive the first year and will expect the student to become a resident to qualify for in-state rates starting the second year.

For states that allow in-state residency after one year, there is usually a requirement to stay in the state over the summer also before residency can be granted. Most importantly, students will need to prove “permanent” resident status through things like changing driver’s license to the new state, getting license plates, re-titling a car, voter registration, proving in-state employment, filing taxes, etc.

Trust me, this is not an easy process! The states make it difficult so that everyone doesn’t try to claim in-state residency when it’s only temporary.

My oldest daughter is in grad school in Ohio. Her scholarship picked up full out-of-state tuition for the first year, but required her to become a resident for the second year as the school will only pay for in-state tuition. Therefore, she had to change over everything when she moved in last year so that she could start establishing the one-year residency requirement.

Now, as she heads into her second year of school, she has had to provide lots of documentation – more that we imagined! Twice, the school has come back asking for additional documentation. She still doesn’t know for sure that they are satisfied that she has met the requirements.


I know this has been a lot of information! To sum it all up, public colleges can offer great deals, if they also offer the right fit for your student. Investigate each school according to the criteria I laid out above. Then have your student dig in deeper by looking through the college website and visiting the campus.

For out-of-state schools, check into all opportunities to reduce out-of-state tuition – reciprocity agreements, merit scholarships, out-of-state tuition waivers, and residency requirements. For top students, check into the honors colleges to see if they may offer that extra academic rigor your student needs.

I have created a listing of 125 top public colleges that you can download for free. It includes basic data for each school like in-state and out-of-state cost, enrollment, mid-50% ACT/SAT ranges, acceptance rate, freshman retention rate and rankings. You can download this list for FREE. Look for the bright green box in the lower left corner of your screen.