Earn College Credits in High School, Graduate From College Early and Reduce College Debt by Tens of Thousands of Dollars

Isabelle, the GraduateCredit: Bill Selak: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98274023@N00/2586328614

With the cost of attending college rising every year and savings nowhere near what is actually needed to pay for a college education, students are parents are desperately looking for ways to cut college costs. Academic and athletic scholarships are available for those who are qualify, but for many, even that does not stop college debt from mounting. Besides hitting the lottery what can be done?

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Use Your High School as Leverage to Save Tens of Thousands of Dollars on College Tuition. Many high schools in the United States have programs which allow students to earn college credit now, providing an opportunity to earn enough credits to graduate from college a semester or a year (in extreme cases more) early. Graduating from college early means saving thousands and thousands of dollars in college tuition and reducing college debt. How awesome is that? Below are two programs that can help high school students get college credit now. Note: Savings potential is based on a degree from a typical liberal arts college where the graduation requirement is 120 credits achieved over eight semesters (four years) using a semester system.

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1. Take Advantage of Dual Enrollment Opportunities at Your High School

Dual enrollment programs allow students to take select college courses while in high school. This opportunity offers many advantages, the largest being that it can save students and parents some serious cash on college tuition because students can potentially graduate college early and reduce college costs. It can also help undecided students figure out what they want to major in, saving time (and again, money).

Every dual enrollment program is different so you’ll want to closely review the requirements ofStudying with glasses and penCredit: Morguefile your program if one is offered. In general there are eligibility requirements such as a minimum high school GPA to apply. This is due to the fact that students will literally be doing college level work, so it is important that students are prepared academically.

Depending on the arrangement with the college(s), dual enrollment courses can be free, supported by school or state grants, or offered at a price so discounted (when compared to how much it would cost to take the same course as a college student), it is almost silly not to try take advantage of it. Credits earned in dual enrollment programs are usually transferable to college. Check with your high school for more information.

Each program determines who is eligible. In some schools students in 9th grade can start taking courses, while in other schools students might need sophomore or junior status. The courses can be offered at the high school (before or after the regular school day) or on the college campus. There will most likely be a limit to the type and number of courses you can take each semester.

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How early can students graduate from college by doing this?

Imagine the possibilities! A student in a dual enrollment program that is allowed to start in
10th grade and take two classes per semester each semester through senior year will have completed twelve college courses and accumulated 36 college credits (assuming each course is 3 credits) by the time s/he graduates from high school. This student could enter college with sophomore status and potentially graduate in three years. You can literally save tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition and college costs by participating in high school dual enrollment programs.

2. Take Advanced Placement (AP) CoursesCollege TextbooksCredit: Morguefile

AP courses are courses that are taught in high school that can count as college level courses if students receive a certain score on the final exam. Unlike dual enrollment programs, AP courses are not offered by colleges. The AP program was developed by the College Board, the same folks who run the SAT. There are more than 30 courses available and high schools must follow the curriculum developed by the College Board and be approved to teach the course as an AP course. All AP courses may not be available at a particular high school. However, there may be an opportunity to take AP courses at another school or online during the regular school day.[1] 

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Most four-year colleges in the United States give college credit or advanced placement in college courses (or both) if students score anywhere from 3-5 (on a 5 point scale) on their AP exam. Each college is different. Some colleges may only grant credit if students score a 4 or 5 while other colleges may accept a score of 3. It’s important to check with the colleges that you are considering after graduating high school. The courses themselves do not have a cost attached to them, but students must pay to take the final exam. As of this writing the cost was $87 per exam. Waivers are usually available for those in need. Many students also purchase study guides to help them prepare for the exam.

Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall semester, 2010Credit: sidewalk flying: http://www.flickr.com/photos/76994867@N00/5375603380The benefit of taking AP courses is similar to that of a dual enrollment program in that students can obtain college credit early, for little or no cost which could help them graduate from college early, cut college costs and reduce overall college debt. If a student took two AP courses a year (each course lasts an entire year) and scored high enough on every exam to receive college credit, that student would have eight college courses under his/her belt or the equivalent of 24 college credits (based on a typical 3 credit course). That would allow this student to potentially graduate an entire semester early. With a typical 120 credit degree requirement for most liberal arts colleges (depending on the major), if the student picked up two extra courses (six credits) while in college, combined with the AP courses, s/he could potentially graduate in three years, an entire year earlier!

RELATED: Two Ways to Graduate College Early and Save Thousands on College Costs


It is important to note that there is some controversy about AP courses and whether they are really preparing students for college level work.[2][3] Unlike dual enrollment programs where students are actually taking college courses, AP courses are developed to emulate college courses. If the way that the curriculum is set up or the way the courses are taught are not preparing students for the rigor of college work, then students may be put at a disadvantage. It is important to research the AP program you are considering and be comfortable that the courses are not only helping students get a jump-start on college, but also preparing them.

Consider the Tradeoffs

Early college programs are definitely worth considering, especially since they can significantly College BuildingCredit: Morguefilecut college costs. However, there may be tradeoffs and it is important to be aware of them when exploring these opportunities. Students may spend many more hours studying than if they did not participate in early college programs. This may leave less time for extra-curricular activities and entertainment. Students need to be prepared and have the right mind-set about these courses. A student who isn’t serious about doing well or is struggling with regular high school courses should weigh if these programs are right for him/her.

It is also important to consider what it means to graduate college early. It could mean that there is no time for that study abroad program or that double or triple major. Or perhaps students stay the full four years and access opportunities they might not have been able to without accruing all of those college credits in high school. You’re not actually saving money this way, but you aren’t spending any additional money….which is a savings of sort. Personally, with all of the money that can be saved on tuition, I would rather my student graduate a year early. With the savings, I’d be more than happy to pay for an amazing experience abroad. I’m sure I could make it happen cheaper than the college anyway. What better way to celebrate cutting down the college debt.