In early May, Florida teen Grace Bush made national headlines for graduating from college before she even received her high school diploma. The 16-year-old participated in Florida Atlantic University’s dual enrollment program, which allows students to get college credit for their high school studies. Certainly, Bush saved a lot of time by wrapping up her college studies before she’s even allowed to vote, but there was another incentive for earning dual credit in high school. In an interview with CBS’s Miami news affiliate, it was revealed that Bush’s ambition has saved her family tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition—a particularly necessary occurrence, as funds are tight in her family of nine children.
While most students would balk at starting college at 13 and finishing in three years, all while attending high school, it is still very possible to take advantage of opportunities to earn college credit—and save a ton of cash—before ever becoming a full-time university student. Here, we outline the best ways to get a jump-start on college credit and keep thousands in your pocket.
AP Courses Exams
High-performing students can enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) courses during high school that will give them an opportunity to earn credit that may later transfer to their college of choice. Classes are generally taught for a full year with a proficiency exam administered in May. The exam is graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with the student’s score determining whether the course will be accepted as a transfer credit.
“Students should check with the individual institutions to see what the qualifying scores are, but less selective schools will often give credit for 3’s and higher, moderately selective schools for 4’s and higher, and the most selective schools for 5’s and higher,” says Brian Stewart, founder of BWS Education Consulting and creator of FreeTestPrep.com.
Advanced placement courses and exams are notoriously rigorous. If extra prep is needed in advance of the exam, Stewart recommends purchasing a study book from Barron’s or another test-prep company, as well as reviewing past test questions on the AP Central website. The work is tough—but well worth it in the end.
“It only costs $89 to take an AP exam, and many schools often pay the fee on behalf of the students, so they can take the AP exam free of charge. The College Board also offers fee reductions to students with financial need,” explains Stewart. “With a semester of college ranging anywhere from $5,000-$30,000, AP credit can be a great bargain for students and parents. If we figure that the typical student takes four classes in a semester, for each AP exam credit she earns, it will save roughly $1,000-$8,000 in tuition. If a student is able to graduate a year early, one should factor in the savings in room and board as well as the extra year of tuition. I often tell my students [to] go into the AP exam thinking you are potentially making $2,000 an hour to take this test! That definitely helps with motivation.”
As a final note, not all AP credit will transfer, so Stewart advises students to stick to the main academic areas, including calculus, history, biology, etc.
Dual Enrollment Courses
Like Bush, students who earn good grades and score well on a college placement exam can earn college credit for courses that they are taking in high school. Unfortunately, not all high schools offer dual enrollment courses, and not all colleges accept dual enrollment credit, says Nathan Barber, a 20-year administrator at an independent college prep school in Houston, Texas. So it is important that students and parents do their research before making any enrollment decisions.
“For example, a student in Houston who earns college credit for College Algebra via dual enrollment with Houston Community College may not be able to take that credit with him out of state or even to private colleges and universities within his state,” he explains.
For students who can take advantage of the opportunity, however, dual enrollment may provide a better chance of earning credit for those who aren’t great test-takers. “Dual enrollment courses offer students the opportunity to work all semester for a grade, and ultimately for credit, while testing requires students to hit or miss with a single exam,” Barber says.
And, of course, there is the huge savings potential. “Students can potentially earn up to 12, 15, 18, 21 and perhaps even more hours of college credit,” says Barber. “These are real numbers from students I have worked with in the past, and with this many hours of college credit awarded, students can save tuition dollars in great amounts. For example, a student attending a state university whose 2014-15 tuition is set at $300 per hour could expect to save $3,600, $4,500, $5,400 or even $6,300 based on the numbers above.”
It is also important to note that students can begin taking dual enrollment courses as soon as they pass the college placement exam.
In addition to AP exams, students may earn college credit by scoring above certain thresholds on standardized tests including the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) and the SAT II subject area tests. But again, policies vary significantly from university to university. Additionally, colleges may offer students the opportunity to test out of freshman level classes directly with the school prior to arriving on campus.
But while opportunities to earn advance credits abound, Barber does advise that colleges are becoming more conservative with awarding college hours. “The trend seems to be twofold,” he explains. “First, college professors have been arguing that high schools cannot provide the same level of education as colleges and universities and, therefore, freshmen need to receive said instruction in college. Second, higher-ed institutions have been feeling the effects of those college credit tuition dollars not entering their revenue streams.”
Barber notes that most college guidance counselors expect this trend to continue, making it more difficult to earn credit through testing or dual enrollment. But with the potential for students to shave thousands off of their college tuition, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
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