The Guide to Earning College Credit in High School

High-achieving teenagers can often earn college credits before graduation, thanks to several programs that are in place for these students. The cost of college tuition and board can be prohibitive for some families, but savvy students can take advantage of these early opportunities to earn credits. Ultimately, these students may be able to finish college in less than 4 years, fit a double major into a 4-year program or create room within a 4-year-plan to spend a semester studying abroad. Typical out-of-state tuition at a state school usually averages about $30,000 per year, so even finishing one semester early translates to a $15,000 savings.

Several models exist by which a student may demonstrate enough proficiency with a particular subject that credits can be awarded before a student even sets foot on campus.

  • AP Testing: Advanced Placement (AP) Testing is commonly found in public and private high schools. AP classes are collegiate-level classes taught in high schools that potentially earn college credits. There are 34 developed AP courses; individual high schools vary in their offerings. Most high schools begin offering AP options during sophomore year, though freshman AP classes are becoming more common.Working from a syllabus and using college-level reading materials, an AP class is taught in place of its high school equivalent. For example, your high school may offer biology, honors biology, and AP biology in order to meet your science credit requirement for junior year. In the AP class, your instructor will encourage note-taking, class discussion and projects on par with a collegiate course. This class has midterm and final exams just like any high school course.Where AP becomes advantageous is in the testing at the end of the school year. A proctored examination of the course material, independent of the final exam, is offered offsite. This exam is graded on a numerical scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best score. When you apply to college, your college may accept that test score in lieu of requiring that you take biology. Most schools require at least a 4 for credit, though some colleges will accept a 3. You will receive high school class credit regardless of your performance on the AP exam.
  • CLEP: The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is less commonly seen but is a solid method of earning college credits ahead of the game. CLEP only requires that you make an acceptable minimum score on the exam to receive college credits; there is no curriculum and no high school credit. The test takes about 90 minutes and is a proctored, offsite exam.While the 33 available CLEPs are proficiency exams without classroom instruction, some study materials are available. Sample exams and study materials may be found online. Some students may want to consider free online study sources, such as a MOOC or free class from iTunes or Khan Academy for additional test preparation. Each college sets its own rules about which CLEP exams count as credit hours, so check with your individual school before you commit.
  • Excelsior College Examinations (ECEs) are proficiency examinations without classroom instruction, somewhat like CLEPs. ECEs are accepted for class credit at many academic institutions. It is worth noting that nursing exams are the only Excelsior exams that have been approved by the American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Services (ACE CREDIT).After registration, students have six months for prepare for and take the ECE. Some study materials and practice exams are provided, and students are encouraged to prepare independently. Again, a MOOC or another free online course in the subject matter could be a useful preparation tool. High school students are not the only users of ECEs; working adults may use them for career advancement, and students from other schools can transfer credits in this manner to Excelsior College.
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is a uniquely designed curriculum that is deployed on secondary school campuses. The IB curriculum is rigorous: students aged 3 to 19 must create age-appropriate work in the form of an extended essay related to independent research. Students examine knowledge theory, creativity, perform service and learn two foreign languages.At the conclusion of the program curriculum, students' projects and test scores are graded by external faculty and assigned numerical grades up to 45. Any score higher than 24 is equivalent to a passing grade. While no credits are assigned that can be used in college, this program uniquely prepares its students for a challenging academic life.

Students in dual enrollment programs take classes taught either at high school or on a community college campus. Regardless where the class is taught, the student receives credit for both classes. In this way, high school juniors and seniors can earn enough college credits that they often are able to begin college as juniors. This is a considerable savings; an average class at a community college might cost less than $500. A dual enrollment student can complete two years of general education requirements for far less than regular in-state tuition once a student has graduated high school.

A dual enrollment program helps prepare high school students for the challenges of collegiate-level coursework. These students gain confidence about keeping up with peers on a college campus and save money by earning general education credits while still in high school.

However, many dual enrollment program credits do not transfer to traditional universities, particularly selective schools in New England. Students who earn credits this way should try to project, if possible, where they might want to finish a 4-year degree program and determine whether dual enrollment credits will transfer.

Some students opt for dual enrollment to beef up a high school resume and perhaps provide a boost in the freshman admissions process. Still others use the opportunity to take classes that aren't offered at the high school level; for example, a high school that doesn't offer many AP classes might leave a high-achieving student feeling as though his transcript isn't as strong as it needs to be for college admissions. This student can opt for higher-level classes at the community college in order to compete with peers at freshman admissions.

Online education is more reputable than when it first appeared on the educational scene, fortunately. Students with advanced abilities may be able to take some online courses before college, perhaps over the summer junior and senior year, and retain the credits for them. First ensure that the online school is accredited properly; online programs must clearly list accreditation status on their websites. Beware phony accreditation and watch for programs that are approved by the U.S. Dept. of Education. You can also check U.S. News and World Report's online school rankings for information. Once you've made sure that your online course is legitimate, double-check with your potential colleges to see that they will accept transfer credits for the courses you take.

Cost for an online course through a traditional academic university is about the same per-credit cost as for classroom study. Strictly online schools may charge more per class; tuition ranges widely, so shop around before you choose your online resource. Particularly savvy students may take a MOOC that offers course credit or a certification of completion; some universities grant transfer credit in these instances.

Many traditional universities offer summer programs geared to high school students. They are often subject-specific and may resemble summer camp, but they do offer a taste of campus life and the college environment. Some students believe that having attended one or two college summer sessions adds punch to admissions applications when they apply as freshmen.

Nearly all areas of study are made available; students may study arts and sciences, music, sports, mathematics or engineering. Students live in dorms and eat on campus. Generally these sessions are short: usually a few weeks at most. Unfortunately, they are not inexpensive. Luckily, though, most schools do offer some assistance on a financial need basis, and some high school organizations provide full or partial scholarships for students to attend college summer sessions. In the best-case scenario, credits can be earned during these sessions.and transferred later.

Some families take advantage of a government-funded program called Upward Bound. Upward Bound is a federal program designed for low-income families and students who are the first-generation college students. Funds are limited, and guidelines are strict: students must apply via a school counselor, maintain a 2.0 GPA and be enrolled in participating high school. Even then, there is no guarantee that funds will be granted for college summer sessions. Most students who qualify do so in freshman year of high school and may continue until graduation. For a sampling of an Upward Bound program, review specifics at Evergreen College, Cornell University and Syracuse University.

Many high school graduates find the transition to college a difficult one, particularly if he or she is unprepared academically. Aside from earning credits that can be used later, taking advantage of summer sessions, dual enrollment, online courses and collegiate-level classes can offer a glimpse of what college is really like. Students who have been exposed to the academic and social realities of the campus experience may find the transition less shocking, and therefore may be more likely to stay in school.