by Nikki Schwab

Trials and Tribulations of a College Education in the 21st Century |

At 18, Chas Strobel already has his career path mapped out: The Minnesota high school senior wants to work in the marketing department of a large auto company. With such a specific goal, Strobel needed a very particular course of study in college. And that left him looking mostly at schools outside his home state, an expensive prospect on a limited budget.

He found a match at Pittsburg State in Kansas. "I had been down there and really loved it," he said. But there was a catch; out-of-state tuition cost almost three times as much as in-state. His first reaction: "It was a little out of reach."

That was when Strobel learned about the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which enables students from eight states to attend any one of more than 140 public and private universities in the region while paying no more than 150 percent of the cost of in-state tuition. In Strobel's case, the hefty discount would make Pittsburg State a reality. "I definitely wouldn't have been there if I had not been part of the program," he says. "I'm thankful that I got in, and it's a really good deal."

Know no boundaries.

Not many parents know about these reciprocity agreements, and for some you'll need a knowledgeable college counselor because they're very local. The University of Cincinnati, for example, offers in-state tuition to the residents of eight Kentucky counties. A good place to start is with the four geographically based programs for undergraduates that are offered by large education compacts. There's the Midwest program that helped Strobel, the Academic Common Market in the South, the Western Undergraduate Exchange in the West, and the New England Board of Higher Education Regional Student Program.

These programs are not exactly alike, but their basic purpose is the same.

Most of the schools that students can attend are public; there are a smattering of private ones, too. Admissions requirements vary from program to program and from school to school. Some students can get a break only if they are pursuing a specific major, but certain programs automatically give students a discount if they are admitted to a particular university from an eligible state.

The Academic Common Market is the strictest; students are eligible only if they are pursuing a specific major listed in the program's catalog. But these students get the biggest discount: All pay in-state tuition. "Originally, Southern states needed students to cross state lines for specialized programs because they literally couldn't offer even the basic professional programs they needed," explains Alan Richard, the Southern Regional Education Board's director of communications. Today, the majors are still fairly specialized. Examples of majors that qualify include wireless engineering, education of the deaf, and public-health administration.

Aloha! Schools that participate in the Western Undergraduate Exchange are often more liberal with discounts.

When Alexandra Goodman decided after spending her freshman year in state at Boise State that she was ready for an adventure in Hawaii, all she had to do was get into the University of Hawaii-Hilo to be eligible for WUE. It certainly convinced her mom. "Once I told her about the WUE, she said, 'Oh, yeah, I'd take that,'" the graduating senior recalls. Also, because of the huge territory it covers, WUE offers students a variety of colleges and universities to choose from. Dan Davenport, the University of Idaho's admissions and financial aid director, says it allows low-income students from other states to consider Idaho when they might not otherwise have been able to do so.

In all four programs, schools can choose to participate or not.

New England's program is similar to the Academic Common Market in the South: Students can make use of the discount only if they are majoring in something that isn't offered at home. In general, none of the programs link the discount to financial need.

The programs aren't heavily advertised, so interested students must do some research. "There's kind of a delicate balance here," explains Bruce Chaloux, director of student access programs and services at the Southern Regional Education Board. "We are not trying to promote getting a Georgian to go to Tennessee to go to school -- that's not our objective. At the same time, we know that there are Georgians who want to go to school and do not have a program available in the state of Georgia, so we want to encourage them."

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Regional Agreements allow Hefty Discount for Students from Nearby States