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“Resident for tuition purposes”—a phrase that is familiar to North Carolina college admissions and financial aid administrators. My first exposure to residency came on a college campus as I began learning how to determine whether students met the residency requirements for state financial aid and in-state tuition. On the surface it sounds simple, but to be honest, it’s complicated. To better understand, let’s take a look at the residency process and how it has evolved.

State statutes outline the basic criteria for residency, including permanent residence, living in North Carolina at least 12 months, and the provision that a student’s domicile is that of his or her parents even though a student can demonstrate residentiary acts on his or her own such as working and paying taxes, registering to vote, and possessing a North Carolina drivers’ license.

Prior to the creation of the Residency Determination Service (RDS), 114 colleges and universities each determined whether its students met the legal requirements to be residents of North Carolina for state financial aid and tuition purposes. Some campuses had a few residency questions on their admission applications while others had a page or more of questions. At some institutions, the decisions were made in multiple offices across a campus or on satellite campuses. Training was inconsistently offered and employee turnover could affect the ability of smaller campuses to have knowledgeable residency resources on staff. Students provided residency information on each admissions application. Yet, discrepant decisions for the same students applying to multiple campuses were possible when the statutory requirements were interpreted at the campus level. Such inconsistencies, along with the duplication of effort on multiple campuses, captured the attention of state leaders and concerns grew. There was evidence that, to evaluate every student fairly, a standard application should exist with uniform application of residency statutes and policies for assessing North Carolina residency.

In 2013, the General Assembly charged the University of North Carolina (UNC), the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) and the State Education Assistance Authority, in consultation with the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, with exploring the centralization of residency to bring efficiency, consistency, and accuracy to the process. A collaboration of representatives from the NCCCS System Office and the UNC System Office, as well as campus subject matter experts worked diligently over several years to create a centralized service.

In December 2016, RDS was launched and to date, more than 620,000 determination requests have been submitted. RDS translates both the residency requirements stipulated in General Statute and long-standing residency policy into a conversational interview technology, much like TurboTax. RDS presents as few questions as possible to determine that a student is a resident, but it asks as many questions as necessary before determining that a student is not a resident. The information the student provides is validated with other state agencies to confirm accuracy and reduce the need for a student to provide additional documentation. Questions are supplemented with help text to assist students, and call centers are available for students and institutions to answer questions as needed. At the end of the interview, a student is provided with a determination that can be used to be considered for both in-state tuition and state financial aid, whether applying to one or multiple campuses. A student with an out-of-state determination has the opportunity to request an appeal that provides one-on-one assistance from an RDS specialist as needed to cover his or her unique circumstances.

So what have we learned during our first two years of operation? First, some institutions who thought residency could not be successfully centralized have been surprised and appreciate that they no longer have to allocate time to residency decisions and appeals, nor do they have difficult conversations with prospective students about why they don’t qualify for in-state tuition or state financial aid. Second, we learned that we need to reorder questions in the online interview to get to “YES” more quickly and in some cases, remove questions altogether if no longer necessary due to validation. Third, family units are different from those in the 1970s when the residency statute was initially drafted. Some students are homeless, some do not live with parents or have a guardian, and some may be independent of their parents for years by the time they attend college. Asking those students for parental information, in compliance with current law, is challenging and often requires a conversation to better understand the student’s situation. We are continually examining feedback to make adjustments to the system in order to better serve students and campuses.

RDS has been and continues to discuss the concerns expressed by the community colleges related to the student experience. RDS staff have spent multiple days on community college campuses, working with students as they completed the online interview to identify and subsequently implement changes to the system. As we begin the third year of RDS, high school and college personnel are now better versed in how RDS works. While we will always have a new cohort entering the process, campuses are learning how to support their students, and the RDS team has learned how to support students and colleges.

Our work continues. We want ALL students to be able to easily complete the RDS interview and receive a residency determination. Educating students, parents, high school counselors and college staff is vital to that goal, as well as our execution of continuous improvement. Our goal is to be good stewards of State resources while helping students achieve their academic goals. Fair, accurate, and efficient residency determinations ensure that the benefits of in-state tuition and limited state financial aid are serving those for whom they were intended.

Elizabeth McDuffie

Elizabeth McDuffie is the Executive Director of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.