The fastest way to "save" money for college tuition is to love public colleges and universities. For students who live within the state, such schools usually cost less than half the tab at a private school. The four-year public schools average $4,970 this year for tuition, fees, room and board, compared with $13,544 for private schools (not counting the extra student aid private colleges and universities give).
Cash-strapped parents who might once have chosen a private school are looking particularly at the "public ivys" -- public universities considered on a par with the best private schools.
A plausible list of the top public schools was first set out by Richard Moll in his 1985 book, "The Public Ivys," which is available in a Penguin paperback:
All the campuses of the University of California; Miami University at Oxford (Ohio); the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of Vermont at Burlington; the University of Virginia at Charlottesville; and the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg.
Moll listed the following as "the best of the rest": the University of Colorado at Boulder; the Georgia Institute of Technology at Atlanta; the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; the New College of the University of South Florida; Pennsylvania State University at University Park; the University of Pittsburgh; the State University of New York at Binghamton; the University of Washington at Seattle; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
So there's your shopping list. But before dreams of paying only $4,970 for a $14,000 education stir your hopes, three warnings about the public ivys:
First, some of these schools cost more than average. The University of California's Berkeley campus charges $7,208. Low-income students can get scholarships at these schools. But higher-income parents may not be eligible for student aid. The University of North Carolina, by contrast, pursues a lower-tuition policy, charging $4,554.
Second, the public ivys may sock it to out-of-state students. The University of Vermont hits "foreigners" for $17,216 for tuition, fees, room and board, which is more than you'd pay at the average private school. A few of the schools on the list are more welcoming. Out-of-staters pay $6,920 at the University of Texas at Austin.
Third, state schools typically set quotas for out-of-state students. "We're getting a lot more applicants from out-of-staters," says University of Virginia spokeswoman Louise Dudley, "and since there are fewer spots for them, it's a lot harder to get in."
For "foreigners" to become state residents isn't easy. Different states have different rules. But typically, you have to establish a house or an apartment there, get a driver's license, register to vote, get a job, stay in the state over the summer, file a tax return there, perhaps work for a year at a full-time job.
Ask the college what its rules are on establishing residence. Even if you meet them, you may face a one-year waiting period before qualifying for in-state status.
One thing you can count on: State tuitions won't stay as low, relative to private schools, as they are today. A significant trend throughout the 1980s "has involved increased reliance on tuition and decreased reliance on state appropriations," says Steven Gold, director of the Center of Study for the States in New York.
But even at a higher cost, a public ivy is a bargain at the price.