How to Earn College Credits in High School

 September 10, 2020
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college credits in high school

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Many high school students have the goal of going on to college after they graduate. But did you know that you can earn college credits in high school? Even before you’re officially a college student, you could start racking up college credits. Doing this may even help save you a good amount of cash toward earning your degree.

Read on to learn how to earn college credits in high school via these three methods:

Plus: Why it’s worth getting a head-start on a degree

Testing for college credit

There are tests you can take that could translate directly into college credits. Specifically:

Plus: AP, CLEP and IB costs compared to tuition

Advanced Placement testing

Many high school students will have access to some Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams. Over 4.6 million AP exams across 32 subjects were taken in May 2020, according to The College Board. Exam topics include English literature and composition, chemistry, biology, art history and human geography.

The exam fee for each AP test taken within the U.S. is $95, though students with financial need may be able to receive a $33 fee reduction. Keep in mind that you don’t have to take any AP classes in order to sit for the exams.

AP exams have scores ranging from 1 to 5. You may be able to get credit or from your college based on your AP score, as long as you get a 3 or above. For example, per the College Board, if you earn a 4 on your AP U.S. History exam, you may be able to receive six credits from your college as a result of that score. This means you can walk onto campus on your first day with six credits already earned.

If you come onto campus with enough AP credits, It’s possible you could graduate early, and thus spend less on college tuition.

Not all colleges grant credits for AP scores, however. Check with the college you plan to attend, or those you may be considering, to see if they grant credit hours for AP scores to ensure they will be worth the cost. Instead of credits, it’s possible your school may offer advanced placement, which means you can skip some of the introductory classes other students have to take.

It’s possible you may even be able to get both credit and advanced placement, depending on what your school offers. Just be sure to send in your scores to your intended college; once you do, they should let you know whether you can receive credits, advanced placement or both. You can use this tool from The College Board to find colleges that offer credit, placement or both for AP exams.

College Level Examination Program

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) also offers examinations for students to potentially earn college credits. Students can get CLEP credits by earning a qualifying score on one of 34 standardized tests, covering subjects such as Composition and Literature, World Languages, History and Social Sciences and Science and Mathematics.

You first get a raw score based on the number of questions answered correctly, and then receive a scaled score between 20 and 80. The American Council on Education recommends that colleges grant credits to students who score 50 or higher on the CLEP, although it will ultimately depend on your school, so you should contact your college to find out their specific CLEP credit policies. You can use The College Board’s tool to check several colleges’ policies, and find testing centers, research different tests offered and find study guides at

Each exam costs $89, though The College Board notes that test centers may charge additional administrative fees.

International Baccalaureate (IB) programs

Some high schools offer IB diplomas through two-year programs that are considered to be academically challenging. These programs exist across the globe, including in the U.S., and at the end of the program, you will receive scores from 1 to 7 for six subject tests, for a total possible score of 42, along with a potential three additional points for the core components. The subject groups are: Studies in Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Mathematics and The Arts.

The IB test costs $119 per subject.

As is the case with the AP and CLEP, not all colleges will accept IB scores for credits, but many do, including top schools like Harvard, Princeton and The University of Chicago. Colleges have differing policies regarding providing credits for IB courses.

For example, UChicago may offer up to a year’s worth of credit in an IB topic in which a student scores a 6 or 7. Harvard, on the other hand, may offer entry into its Advanced Standing program if you score a 7 on at least three IB exams, which could allow you to graduate a year early.

AP, CLEP and IB costs compared to tuition

How much you can save by transferring AP, CLEP or IB exam credits to your college depends both on the cost of your college and its policy regarding credit policies. Consider these figures from our study on the costs of college credits in the U.S.:

  • The median costs of a credit hour at a four-year nonprofit college is $530, assuming a 12-credit-hour course load per semester.
  • The cost of a credit hour based on average tuition and fees for a four-year private college is $1,537.
  • The average difference between the in-state and out-of-state cost of a credit hour at a top-50 state college, based on tuition and fees, is $838.

Overall, per the College Board, the average cost of attending an in-state public school is $9,410 per year; as an out-of-state student, the average cost is $23,890. A private four-year college will run you $32,410 on average.

So, as an example, let’s take a look at a state college that accepts credits from all three exams. The University of Florida has an in-state cost of $266 per credit hour, and an out-of-state cost of $1,194. The school allows for a maximum of 45 credit hours by combining AP, CLEP, IB and AICE credits (the AICE is the Advanced International Cambridge Examinations Program that is available to Florida students in grades K through 12).

If you take the Spanish Language AP exam, just to name one subject, and get at least a 4, UF will award you 6 credits. That AP exam cost you $95. Six credits at UF, if you are an in-state student, will cost you $1,596. If you are an out-of-state student, those six credits will run you $7,164. That’s a lot more than $95.

Now take the CLEP exam: If you earn at least a 50, you can get three credits for a number of subjects, including Calculus and Introductory Psychology. Three credits as an in-state student will run you $798. As an out-of-state student, you’ll pay $3,582. The CLEP exam is $89 per subject.

Now let’s move on to the IB exam credit — we’ll take Economics as an example. If you receive a 4 on the exam, UF will give you three credits: Three credits as an in-state student will cost $798, and you’ll pay $3,582 coming from out of state. If you get a 5 or up, you’ll get eight credits: Eight credits at UF as an in-state student will cost you $2,128, and you’ll pay $9,552 as an out-of-state student. The IB exam will run you $119.

As you can see from the figures above, earning credits from the AP, CLEP or IB exams can be a real money saver at schools — such as UF — that accept them.

Dual enrollment programs

Another option for getting college credits while still in high school is to take advantage of a local dual enrollment program. These programs allow high school students to actually enroll in college classes and potentially earn college credits.

High school students either attend classes at a nearby college campus or go to college classes taught on their own high school campus; online options are also available. Dual enrollment may be a good option for students who would prefer not to take the rigorous AP exams.

A student interested in a dual enrollment program should speak with their high school counselor to find opportunities in their area. Not all school systems will offer such programs, so you’ll have to find out what’s available at your school and in your specific region.

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.

Many dual enrollment programs will give students the chance to earn college credit hours at a discount, or even at no cost depending on your situation. Others require families to help pay for tuition, either part or all of it. You may also be able to secure a grant or use money from your 529 college plan to pay for a dual enrollment program.

Still, dual-enrolled students might also encounter unexpected college costs such as enrollment fees, lab fees and college textbooks. If you are considering a dual-enrollment program, review all fee schedules and costs to ensure you can cover them. Speaking with a counselor at or administrator of the dual credit program can be helpful to decide if it’s the right option for you.

For more details, check out our look at the differences between dual enrollment and AP exams.

Summer study programs

You may be able to earn college credits in between graduating from high school and starting your freshman year of college, or as a high school junior. Some of these programs may be extremely selective based on academic ability, and they may be expensive in some cases, but for certain students, these programs can offer an enriching way to earn college credits before they actually start college.

For example, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has a program for rising high school juniors and seniors, allowing them to earn four college credits through attending the National Institution of American History & Democracy’s pre-college program in American history.

Stanford, meanwhile, offers a High School Summer program that allows students to earn credit and, according to its website, “an official transcript from Stanford.”

Why it’s worth 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.

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

With some focus, a student may graduate college in just three-and-a-half years, instead of four, and skip a semester’s worth of college costs. Some may even skip a full year. This means they may start earning paychecks six months sooner while gaining real-world work experience.

Preparing for college

Whether it’s AP courses, CLEP tests or dual enrollment programs, high school students and their parents should check out the multiple opportunities available to earn college credits before actually starting college. This could help students enter college armed with credits, and potentially allow them to save money on their college degree.

Just be sure to find out if your college of choice offers credits for the program you choose, as requirements differ among schools.

Meanwhile, check out these great strategies to help pay for college.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.

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