How to Get Cheap (or Free) College Credits in High School

college credits in high school

High school students and parents looking ahead to college might see nothing but dollar signs. But there are ways they can actually get a head start on paying for college now — like earning college credits in high school.

It’s often cheaper or even free to get college credits while still in high school. Students who get these credit hours now could save hundreds compared to what they’d pay in college.

Testing for college credit

Advanced Placement testing

Most high school students will have access to some Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses and exams.

These programs are increasingly common. Among the Class of 2013, about a third of public high school graduates took an AP exam. And approximately a fifth of those earned a 3 or higher on a test, according to exam data from College Board.

AP exams cost $92 each to take, and $30 per exam for students from low-income families. These exams give scores ranging from 1 to 5. Colleges may recognize and grant credits for scores of 3 and higher.

Not all colleges grant credits for AP scores, however. Check with the college you plan to attend to see if they grant credit hours for AP scores to ensure they will be worth the cost.

College Level Examination Program

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) offers examinations for students to earn college credits.

Students can get CLEP credits by earning a qualifying score on one of 33 standardized tests. Each test costs just $80, takes 90 to 120 minutes to complete, and grants three college credits or more depending on the subject.

If you’re thinking about earning college credits in high school through CLEP exams, make sure you verify that your college of choice accepts CLEP results as credit. College Board has this handy tool you can use to check.

You can also find testing centers, research different tests offered, and find study guides at CLEP.collegeboard.org.

AP and CLEP costs compared to tuition

An AP exam costs $92 and can grant three or more college credits. A CLEP exam costs even less, at $80 each.

Meanwhile, those same college credits would cost over four times as much at a community college at just over $429, according to College Board tuition costs estimates. That’s assuming the student is enrolled full-time at a community college and taking a 3-credit course at $142 a credit.

And, if a student is enrolled full-time at an in-state public school,  it’s nearly 13 times as much at just over $1,176 for a 3-unit course. That’s with each individual unit costing about $392.

Yet, a student who passes two AP exams for each of his junior and senior years will get 12 credits or more for just $368. That’s $1,348 less than taking those courses at a community college, on average, and $4,336 less than at an in-state school.

Dual enrollment programs

A third option for how to get college credits in high school is to take advantage of a local dual enrollment program. These allow high school students to actually enroll in and attend college classes while earning college and high school credits for the same class.

High school students either attend classes at a nearby college campus or attend college classes taught on their own high school campus.

Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia have statewide dual enrollment policies in place (Alaska, New Hampshire, and New York are the exceptions).

A high school student interested in a dual enrollment program can do some research and speak with their own high school counselor to find opportunities in their area.

Costs of dual enrollment

The savings of dual enrollment programs are harder to estimate.

Programs vary widely from state to state and even between school districts. And the costs of dual enrollment programs can range from free up to the full tuition the college charges for a course.

Many dual enrollment programs will give students the chance to earn college credit hours for free. Others require families to help pay for tuition, either part of it or all of it.

Students might also encounter unexpected college costs like enrollment fees, lab fees, or college textbooks.

Students and parents considering a dual enrollment program should make sure they fully understand it. They should review all fee schedules and costs to ensure they are able and willing to cover them.

Speaking with the counselor at their current school or a similar administrator of the dual credit program can be helpful to decide if it’s a smart option for them.

Getting a head-start on a degree

On top of the tuition savings, students earning college credits in high school will get ahead on their schooling and gain more academic experience under their belts.

Graduating early

Earning 12 credits through testing is equal to a semester’s worth of coursework. Earning these credits in high school will give a student a substantial head start.

With some focus, they could graduate in just 3.5 years instead of four and skip a semester’s worth of college costs. And instead of studying, they can start earning paychecks six months sooner while gaining real-world work experience.

Students in a dual enrollment program can get a similar advantage.

“Many of our students are choosing careers that require a Masters’ degree or higher,” says Lisa Bruce, a guidance counselor at College of Southern Nevada High School East, which I attended. “Getting this head start sets them down that path earlier.”

I was a student of College of Southern Nevada High School East my junior and senior years of high school. I graduated with about 36 college credits.

Not all of them transferred to my chosen college or counted toward my degree. But they still enabled me to graduate in just three years with a bachelor’s degree.

To make the most of these opportunities, align credit choices with the curriculum of the college and major of your choice.

“[High school students should] speak with the college advisor early if they are degree-seeking, so they know what is required for their degree,” suggests Bruce.

Preparing for college

An added benefit of both testing-for-credit and dual enrollment programs is that they help students apply themselves and better prepare for college.

“[A] dual credit program is an excellent choice for kids to get ahead, but have the safety net of a high school counselor to help guide them along the way,” Bruce says.

Starting college while still at home can help students get used to a new level of independence, while still providing them with support and resources.

It can also help them avoid common college freshman mistakes that can waste thousands of dollars and damage their college record.

“Our kids are successful because they want more, ask questions and know how to study,” Bruce says.

Whether it’s AP courses, CLEP tests, or dual enrollment programs, high school students, and their parents should check out the opportunities available to earn college credits. These can be a smart way to prepare or even pay for college.

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