Guide to Earning College Credit in High School

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The high cost of college tuition and housing can be prohibitive for many families, but savvy teenagers can take advantage of several programs to earn college credits while still in high school. Ultimately, such a strategy would allow these students to finish college in fewer than 4 years, double major or even study abroad, giving them a huge leg up in the job market, not to mention cutting down on their debt. Typical out-of-state tuition at a state school averages out to be $30,000 per year, so finishing just one semester early could mean around $15,000 in savings. In any case, motivated high schoolers would do well to look at their options for college credit now.

Testing to Earn College Credits

There are several ways a student may demonstrate proficiency with a particular subject and simply test to earn the credits before setting foot on campus.

AP Testing

Advanced Placement (AP) Testing is commonly found in public and private high schools. Taking an AP class prepares students for a test on a particular subject, and if they pass, they essentially get waivers for college credits. There are 34 developed AP courses; each high school varies in the ones they choose to offer as classes – that being said, students are still able to study for and take an AP test without having taken a class which teaches towards the test. Most high schools make AP options available 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 college course. The class has midterm and final exams just like any other course.

It’s the testing at the end of the school year that make AP classes truly advantageous. A proctored examination of the course material is offered and graded on a numerical scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best score. When you apply to college, your school may accept that test score in lieu of a biology general ed requirement, for example. Most schools require at least a score of 4 for credit, though some colleges will accept a 3. You will receive high school credit regardless of your performance on the AP exam.


The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is less common than AP exams but still a solid method of earning college credits ahead of the game. CLEP only requires that you make an acceptable minimum score on an 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 massively online open course (MOOC) or a free class from iTunes or Khan Academy for additional preparation. Each college sets its own rules about which CLEP exams count as credit hours, so be sure you know a school’s policy before you commit.

Excelsior College Examinations (ECEs)

These 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 Service (ACE CREDIT).

After registration, students have six months to prepare for and take the ECE. Some study materials and practice exams are provided, and students are encouraged to prepare independently. Again, a 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

This is a uniquely designed curriculum deployed on many 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.

Dual Enrollments

Students in dual enrollment programs take classes at either their high school or a community college campus. Regardless where class is taught, the student receives high school credit. In this way, high school juniors and seniors can fulfill high school and college requirements at the same time, often earning enough college credit to begin their university studies 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.

Many states even pay students’ way for dual enrollment. In Minnesota, for example, the Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) program provides funding for top high school students to take college courses at any of the state’s public universities and colleges, in a class or online. Admission requirements for government-sponsored programs like this differ from state to state, so do some research to see what’s available where you live.

However, many dual enrollment program credits do not transfer to traditional universities. 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.

Many students opt for dual enrollment to enhance a high school resume and get a boost with college admissions. Still others use the opportunity to take classes that aren’t offered at the high school level; for example, in high schools that don’t offer many AP classes, high-achieving students may feel their transcripts aren’t as strong as they could be. These students can opt for higher-level classes at the community college in order to compete with peers from better high schools for admission to top programs.

Online Courses

Online education is more reputable than when it appeared on the educational scene. Students with advanced abilities can take online courses over the summer or during the school year through dual enrollment programs. First ensure the online school is accredited properly; online programs must clearly list accreditations on their sites. Beware of phony accreditations and watch for programs not approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

You can also check U.S. News and World Report’s online school rankings for info. Once you’ve made sure your online course is legitimate, double-check with your potential colleges of choice to see if they will accept transfer credits for your courses.

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 for completion; some universities grant transfer credit in these instances.

Summer College Programs

Another option for earning college credit in high school is through the summer programs offered by colleges and universities to high school students. They are often subject-specific and may resemble summer camp, but they offer a taste of campus life and the overall college environment. Attending one or two summer sessions can add a serious punch to admissions applications.

Students live in dorms and eat on campus. Generally the sessions are short: usually a few weeks at most. And while these programs tend to be pricy, 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. 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, a federal program designed for low-income families and students who are 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 a participating high school. Even then, there is no guarantee funds will be granted for summer sessions.

For a sampling of an Upward Bound program, review some specifics at Evergreen College, Cornell University and Syracuse University.

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

Let’s face it, college is extremely expensive nowadays and many students graduate unsatisfied. Yet at the same time, the experts still say a college degree is indispensable. Make the most of this situation by earning colleges credits ahead of time. You can graduate early or double major, options that will save you money and result in far greater job opportunities. Taking the initiative now will pay dividends for the rest of your life.