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Can I Earn College Credit While Attending High School?

If you’re wondering whether or not it’s possible to earn college credits while still enrolled in high school, the short answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Like most things in academia, the real answer is more complex, though. The truth is that there are many different ways to get a start on your post-secondary education before receiving your college diploma, and each pathway has its own set of pros and cons. If you want to make the best of your time in high school, you need to be strategic about racking up those credits towards your future degree.

Why Earn College Credit in High School?

Doesn’t high school have enough worries of its own? Maybe so, but there’s a case to be made for using these years to get ahead of a college degree plan. This concept was once entertained exclusively by top achievers, but it’s become a more widespread notion in recent years. Not only does it save money towards the cost of a college degree, but studies have shown that starting on college early can make it more likely that a student will finish their degree. Plus, after earning college credits in high school, you’ll lessen the completion time for your degree once you’re officially enrolled.

Who Is Eligible to Earn College Credit in High School?

Clearly, there are many benefits of early college experiences, but what kinds of students are eligible for these programs, and what hoops do they have to jump through to enroll? Good questions!

Most students mistakenly believe that earning college credit while still in high school is a goal that’s out of their reach. These students may agree that racking up college credits at a lower tuition cost while in high school seems like a good idea, but it’s not something they would ever dream is a real option for them. We’re here to set the record straight, though. Early college credit-earning opportunities have become more abundant and more accessible than ever before, meaning all types of students can now take advantage of early college programs from schools across the country and even online.

Now that community colleges have also begun to offer early credit opportunities, even students with lower GPAs or those who plan to bypass university and enter the workforce straight away can benefit from early college programs. Whatever your academic status or post-high school goals, don’t discount the idea of earning college credit prior to your high school graduation!

Ways to Earn College Credit While In High School

If you’re thinking about the possibility of earning college credits during high school, you’ll be happy to know that there are several different options for doing so. You can choose just one option, or consider combining them for a multi-pronged strategy towards an early college degree.

Advanced Placement AP Classes

The idea of earning college credit while still in high school isn’t a new one. Students have been doing this for decades through the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program. This program enables driven students who excel in certain subject areas to take advanced classes in these academic disciplines while still in high school and potentially earn college credit for their work. To earn this credit, though, students must complete the AP course and take and pass a comprehensive examination proving they’ve mastered course concepts.

Currently, the College Board offers more than 35 Advanced Placement examinations, meaning there are many students’ opportunities to earn college credit via this pathway. Exams are offered in academic disciplines spanning the arts, sciences, history, English, mathematics, world languages, and computer science. Not all high schools offer all AP courses, though. Depending upon the secondary school you attend, your options could be abundant, or they may be limited to just one or two classes. If you find yourself dealing with the latter scenario, you may consider online AP classes. Keep in mind that AP exams are not offered online; students will need to report to a testing site to take the examination.

Sample AP Courses/Exams

  • Art History
  • English Language and Composition
  • Psychology
  • U.S. History
  • Statistics
  • Environmental Science
  • Latin

Dual Enrollment (Concurrent Enrollment)

Another option for earning college credit while still in high school is referred to as dual enrollment or sometimes “concurrent enrollment.” As the name implies, this option requires students to be enrolled in two schools at once. These ambitious students will remain enrolled at their current high school, but they will also enroll in a college or university to earn credits for college-level classes. As a result, credit is awarded at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. In this way, dual enrollment gives students the chance to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Eligibility requirements for dual enrollment may vary by state and participating secondary schools and colleges/universities. Typically, though, high school students are eligible to pursue dual enrollment during their junior or senior year in high school. Students may be required to maintain a certain GPA to remain in a dual enrollment program.

Once enrolled in the program, students will take their dual enrollment classes at the high school they attend or at a local university or community college. In some cases, students may take dual enrollment courses online. Credit for the class is awarded upon successful completion of the course. This differs from credit awarded for an AP course, which requires a passing score on the AP exam.

Sample Dual Enrollment Classes

  • Engineering Fundamentals
  • College Composition
  • Art Appreciation
  • College Algebra
  • Environmental Biology
  • Fundamentals of Oral Communication
  • General Psychology

College Level Examination Program (CLEP)

Another College Board option, the College Level Examination Program, commonly referred to by its acronym CLEP, provides another way for high school students to earn college credit before beginning their postsecondary pursuits.  To take advantage of the CLEP program, students need only demonstrate their mastery of a specific college-level subject by taking a CLEP exam and receiving a passing score. Unlike the AP program, students do not need to enroll in a specific high school class to qualify.

Sample CLEP Exams

The College Board currently offers 34 exams. Some of these exams are listed below for reference. You can find a full list on the College Board’s website.

  • English Literature
  • American Government
  • Human Growth and Development
  • College Mathematics
  • Principles of Marketing
  • Introductory Psychology

How to Earn CLEP Credits

Although the College Board sponsors the CLEP program, it is up to individual colleges and universities to determine if and how to award CLEP credits. In some cases, passing a CLEP exam may exempt you from taking a class, but you won’t receive any credit toward your degree. In other cases, you could receive full credit for the class just by scoring high on the exam. Before taking a CLEP exam, it’s best to check with your college of choice and consider its CLEP policy.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Program

A less common but still viable way to earn college credits during high school is through the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. Like the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program, the IB option is reserved for high-performing students who want to get a jump-start on their college plans. Unlike AP though, IB programs are offered at the elementary and middle school levels as well as in high school. Only high school students have the opportunity to earn college credit by passing an IB examination, however. Another distinguishing factor between AP and IB programs is that in IB, students can take specific courses on an individual basis or pursue an entire diploma based in the IB curriculum. AP students only have the option to take individual classes.

The IB program for high school students covers six different academic disciplines:

  • Language and Literature
  • Language Acquisition
  • Individuals and Societies
  • Mathematics
  • Sciences
  • The Arts

Early College Programs

The term “early college programs” is an umbrella term that refers to just about any type of college program that enables high schoolers to earn college credit. Fortunately for you, colleges and universities across the country are hard at work coming up with new and exciting ways for students to jumpstart their college careers, so the options are numerous.

One of the most exciting developments in early college initiatives is career and technical education programs. These pre-college options enable students interested in learning a trade or technical vocation to earn a college certificate or degree before graduating high school. Pursuing this option can make for a seamless transition from high school to the workforce for eligible students.

Summer Pre-College Experiences

While technically not a method of earning college credit prior to high school graduation, summer pre-college experiences represent yet another way to earn credits before official college enrollment.  These alternative options enable students to get a jumpstart on their college careers during the summer before freshman year. The idea is to provide a way for new students to acclimate to college life and academics before diving into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. Not all of these programs offer credit-earning opportunities, but many of them do. Those colleges and universities that allow students to earn actual college credits during the pre-college experience often award these credits for general education classes—those that provide introductory material in a variety of different academic disciplines.

When considering a pre-college program, keep in mind that some of these offerings are residential, meaning they require participating students to live on campus for the duration of the program. Other pre-college programs are non-residential, enabling students to commute to campus for classes and other program requirements. If you’re interested only in earning early college credit, a non-residential program may be your best bet. However, if you want an authentic taste of actual college life, we recommend a residential program.

Frequently-Asked Questions About Earning College Credits in High School

Earning college credit during high school is no small feat. Despite colleges’ and universities’ efforts to make early college and dual enrollment programs more accessible to average high school students, there is still a lot of work involved. It’s best to get as much information as possible about these programs before enrollment. In that spirit, we offer the following list of frequently asked questions and answers. The information provided here is meant to provide general guidance, not provide specific information about any particular school or program.

Q: What’s the first step towards earning college credit in high school?

A: There are many different types of programs and options available for earning early college credit, but you may not be eligible for all of them. The first step is to speak to your high school counselor about the programs available to you, given your high school enrollment status.

Q: Who is eligible to earn college credit in high school?

A: Most high school juniors and seniors will be eligible for some early college programs. Different colleges have varying eligibility requirements, though. You may be required to submit your GPA for consideration or take a placement test, for example.

Q: Can I earn an entire college degree while still in high school?

A: Actually, yes! It depends on the program, though. Some early college and dual/concurrent enrollment options allow students to earn a complete associate’s degree before graduating from high school.

Q: Can I earn early college credits online?

A: It’s likely. Many colleges and universities offer their early college and dual/concurrent enrollment classes online, on campus, or at participating high schools.

Q: How much does it cost to earn college credit during high school?

A: It depends. Tuition rates and fees can vary widely from program to program. In most cases, though, the tuition you’ll pay for early college credit will be significantly less than what you would pay as a college freshman. Plus, some high school districts willingly foot the bill for their early college students, meaning you could potentially earn college credit for free as a high school student.

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