Long-time readers know that one of my earliest recurring themes here on the blog was techniques to bring down the cost of higher education. Not by “applying for scholarships” or “getting good grades,” but by manipulating the machinery of the financial aid system.
With colleges and universities around the country announcing their decisions about whether students will be allowed to return to campus and attend classes in-person this fall, it’s become fashionable to joke about “whether it’s worth enrolling” at Harvard if you’ll miss out on the excitement of going to parties with the most annoying people in the world, sorry, scratch that, I mean The Future Leaders of Tomorrow.
I think this is a very boring question. It’s July, so you already know if you’ve been admitted to Harvard, or Stanford, or even Dartmouth, and there’s no reason at all to enroll in “virtual” classes this fall. Dostoevsky will be waiting for you next year. Write the admissions committee a nice letter asking if you can instead join them in 2021. If nothing else, you’ll be a year older, your facial hair won’t look so scruffy, and maybe you’ll have learned to dress yourself a bit better in the interim.
Let me frame the boring question as precisely as possible: if you (or, more realistically if you’re reading this blog, one or more of your kids) have already been admitted to the higher education institution they want to attend, and that institution is not operating as expected this fall, you should defer admission to next fall.
But the existence of a boring question suggests the existence of an interesting question.
What should a high school graduate do instead?
To understand the answer to this question you need to know two things:
- most four-year colleges and universities do not allow students to apply as freshmen (the most common and easiest form of admission) if they have received any college credits after the summer following their senior year of high school.
- most states do not allow students to establish residency for the purposes of in-state tuition if they move to the state “exclusively” in order to enroll in higher education.
The logic behind the first bullet point is that many high schools now allow students to directly enroll at local colleges and receive college credits while they’re still in high school. These programs have different names, but they’re fairly common and they’re all basically ways to offload students who are bored with secondary school work. This immediately created a problem for university admissions, however: systems that are set up to admit students into 4-year programs directly out of high school were suddenly looking at students who might have 50 or 60 college credits between AP tests and community college classes. To square that circle, most top-tier public and private colleges and universities introduced the rule that freshman could bring in college credits, but only college credits earned in high school (or the summer after graduation). If you earn college credits in the fall after graduation or later, then you’re shunted into the much narrower “transfer” admissions pipeline.
The logic behind the second point is a bit harder to understand, but if you squint just right you can see the idea. States with high-quality public institutions like California, Wisconsin, or Michigan offer lower tuition to in-state residents. You can conceptualize this in different ways: perhaps parents “pay up front” for their children’s tuition through income and sales taxes, or perhaps the higher tuition of out-of-state students “subsidizes” the education of state residents. However you choose to explain it, the consequence is obvious: people to want to move to those states and establish residency! But if establishing residency were easy, then the mechanism wouldn’t work. Everyone would get the in-state tuition rate, and there would be no discount (or no subsidy). So, through laws, court cases, and rule-making, most states have arrived at a kind of equilibrium: to receive in-state tuition you need to only reside in the state for one year — but you must not have moved to the state for the primary purpose of enrolling in higher education. You can move to California for a year and lay bricks, then receive in-state tuition and a full scholarship to the University of California, but you can’t move to California and enroll at Santa Monica College for a year before transferring to the University of California.
Once you get your head around these two principles, the interesting answer presents itself: the last thing any high school graduate should do this year is enroll in higher education!
Move wherever you want to go to college, work, and file taxes
Once you understand all of the above, the solution presents itself cleanly. It’s July, and you’ve already graduated from high school. If you’ve already been admitted to your preferred institution, then you have nothing to worry about, just defer admission for a year. But if you’re unsatisfied with your current opportunities, the good news is there has never been a better time to reset them. Just remember, when establishing residency in a new state, documentation is your friend. The day you arrive:
- register to vote;
- get a new driver’s license, ID card, hunter’s license, gun license, or whatever else suits your fancy;
- sign a lease, and keep a copy;
- switch your bank and credit card statements to your new address;
- file taxes in your new state, even if you don’t owe anything (some states may not allow you to file $0 returns online, but you can still mail them a physical return).
A strange thing about the American psyche is the way it is premised on categories that do not survive even the briefest encounter with reality, and one of the best examples of that is state “residency.” Residency isn’t where you live, it isn’t where you work, and it isn’t where you study. Residency is a vibe.
Establishing residency means getting on the same wavelength as the overworked, underpaid residency cop who has to make 90 residency decisions per hour. So make it as easy as humanly possible for your residency cop to decide in your favor.