Did you know there are three ways to earn college credit while in high school? This means you can lighten the academic load during college & only have to study for that english or history test once. Choosing one of these options requires more work & studying during high school, but the payoff can be very beneficial later when you have to pay to sit through a class that you took during high school.
All three of these ways will be able to save you tuition fees & possibly allow you to graduate early. Some of my high school classmates were able to graduate a semester early because they earned college credit before being accepted to college! That means one less semester of having their nose in the books to pass a test & less student loan debt.
With each method, I will layout the advantages & disadvantages to consider. You may be able to benefit from all one, two, or all three methods. As any of these methods require time commitments beyond your regular coursework, you will want to choose the method that best fits your plan of obtaining a college degree.
There will be two common trends to all three methods:
- All have some required expenses to pay for the exam and/or course curriculum.
- None of the three options will affect your college GPA (this could be good or bad depending on your circumstances)
So, let’s look at how you can earn college credit as a high school student.
Method #1: Advanced Placement
Advanced Placement (AP) is a very popular method to earning college credit as a high school student. In May, you take the AP exam(s) administered by the College Board (the same company that also administers the SAT). There are over 30 different exams available from a variety of subjects including: AP Capstone, Arts, History & Social Sciences, Computer Science & Math, Sciences, and World Languages & Cultures.
For the 2015-2016 school year, each AP exam can cost up to $92.
And if you plan on taking an AP class next school year, be prepared for some summer assignments to prepare you for the material to be taught when school begins again.
How It Works
The AP exam is scored on a 5 point scale with 1 being the lowest score & 5 being the highest. Generally to get college credit you need to get a 3, 4, or 5 on the exam, although most colleges require a 4 or 5 (equivalent to earning a “B” or “A”). If you get a 3 (equivalent of getting a “C”) on the exam, like I did, it might only count for placement in a more advanced course. Hence, the term advanced placement.
What is the difference between credit and placement? Good question. Credit means the AP exam score was high enough to count for credit on your college transcript! So a high score on the AP U.S. History exam means you “tested out of” the college equivalent and get two semesters worth of credit before you even graduate high school! Placement means your score was not high enough to count as credit on your college transcript, but means you can take a more advanced course (U.S. History 201) instead of the introductory course (U.S. History 101) in college.
So if you do get a 3 on the exam, you might have the choice to retake the college equivalent for credit in the future or your college will allow you to take a more advanced course instead. Imagine you get a 3 on the AP Spanish exam. You might be able to start with Spanish 301 that focuses more on conversation & writing long research papers instead of Spanish 201 that is still teaching the basic rules of grammar. If you don’t want the harder class, you can take Spanish 201 at college and it can be an “easy A” to pad your college GPA to ensure you make Dean’s List for the semester.
The primary downside of the AP program, in my opinion, is that you need to earn a 4 or 5 in most cases in order to get college credit after sitting through a college level class all year to prepare for the exam. You might receive an A or B as a grade for the coursework, which affects your high school GPA, but the only factor that determines college credit is the score on the AP Exam in May. Low test score equals no college credit.
If you are unsure what college you want to attend, AP exams are nationally recognized as opposed to dual enrollment (method #2) that normally only recognized on a state or regional level. Although some colleges will not accept any AP exams because there is some debate about whether the AP program is of true collegiate caliber or only a high school course with more homework. I encourage you to check with the admissions department of your prospective colleges to learn more about their credit policies for AP exams. The AP Program also has a handy resource that allow you to search credit policies of many colleges across the nation.
Real Life Example
The only AP class I took was U.S. History. I received a “3” on the AP exam (most common score on most exams) and my college only awarded credit for receiving “4 or 5” on that exam. When I enrolled in college I had the choice to retake U.S. History or substitute two other history classes instead. As I had some tough classes that required more time to study, I chose to retake U.S. History. I was already familiar with the material & would only need to spend the minimal amount of time so it would be an easy A or B.
I would have loved to take some different history courses instead to learn new material, but passing my others classes was a higher priority. Despite not earning college credit, taking the AP class in high school taught me the study skills necessary to succeed in my college classes.
Advantages of Advanced Placement
- A high score can count for one or two semester credit towards college graduation.
- Courses are a good primer to succeed in college level courses.
- Many school districts base your credit on a 5 point scale instead of 4 point scale.
- If you get an “A” on the course material, you get a 5.0 instead of a 4.0 that increases your high school GPA!
- Students who do not attend school with AP programs can also enroll in May testing, but must complete certain applications as described on the AP Program website.
Disadvantages of Advanced Placement
- Limited number of subjects that can be tested for.
- Most colleges will only count a 4 or 5 for credit towards graduation.
- Average score on most exams is a 3 or lower.
- Exams can only be taken in May.
Ideal Students For Advanced Placement
AP courses are probably the best fit for students who are strong in the subjects they take. Some AP exams are harder than others. The average score on most exams is a 3. I don’t say this to scare you, but anybody considering this option needs to know that you are not guaranteed college credit even after a year of preparation. Even if you do not receive a high enough score, you will still be challenged more than regular high school level classes.
When I was in high school, the foreign language exams were some of the hardest to take. It was recommended to us that only native speakers or those with near-fluency to take the exam. Why? To spare us from doing the summer assignment, the extra coursework through the school year that regular foreign language classes didn’t assign, and the test fee.
As there is might be a limit to how many college-level courses your school will allow you to take each year, choose the classes that you feel most confident in being able to earn college credit. If you have questions, talk to a guidance counselor or research the internet about a particular exam for more information.
Method #2: Dual Enrollment
Dual enrollment (DE) is a great option to consider if you plan to attend a public college in your state. This means a much higher probability of earning college credit compared to taking a similar AP course instead. High schools usually offer these courses by partnering with your local community college. Each school offers different courses, but you should be able to enroll in core classes like chemistry, english composition, calculus, and physics.
Similar to the AP program, there will most likely be summer assignments to complete before the school year begins. It varies by school district, but students may have to pay either an application or tuition fee. As the popularity of DE increases, costs are shifting from the college & school systems to individual students.
How It Works
Dual enrollment is very similar to AP classes. There is a summer assignment and harder course work during the school year. There is also a test at the end of the year that must be passed to get credit, although the grading criteria is more forgiving than the AP program.
Dual enrollment classes are recommended for students seeking admission to a public in-state school. Colleges are more selective about dual enrollment courses than Advanced Placement because of regional partnerships.
If you are planning to attend a private college or an out-of-state college, I encourage you to check with their admissions department before investing an entire school year for credit that will not count in college.
My Real Life Example
During my senior year of high school, I had the choice between AP Literature & Composition & its Dual Enrollment equivalent. Both had very similar course material with small nuances, like AP emphasized Shakespeare a little more. Since I was very certain I was going to attend a state college in Virginia (where I also graduated from high school), I chose the dual enrollment course. My future college guaranteed me two semesters of course credit, whereas I needed to get a 4 or 5 on the AP English exam.
I wasn’t willing to take the gamble with the AP course & “waste” a full year of extra work if I didn’t get a high enough score on the AP English exam, when I knew the odds were in my favor with dual enrollment this time.
Advantages of Dual Enrollment
- Much higher probability of earning credit for students attending in-state, public colleges
- Graded on a 5 point scale compared to 4 point scale like traditional high school classes.
- Can increase your cumulative high school GPA making students more competitive for scholarships, etc.
- Classes are similar quality of instruction as Advanced Placement
Disadvantages of Dual Enrollment
- Colleges are more selective about accepting college credit for dual enrollment compared to AP.
- Out-of-state colleges & private colleges are most selective
- High schools might not offer as many dual enrollment classes compared to AP classes.
- Example, your high school might not offer a DE equivalent to AP Statistics or AP Spanish.
- Like the other two methods in this post, dual enrollment only counts as credit towards your college graduation, and does not factor into your college GPA.
- Homeschool students probably won’t be able to enroll in DE programs.
Ideal Students For Dual Enrollment
Dual enrollment is the best option for high school students who will be attending a public university within their state. For example, I graduated from a Virginia high school & college. Had I attended a college in North Carolina, I don’t know if they would have counted my Dual Enrollment English class for college credit like a Virginia state school did.
If you are unsure what college you will attend & if they will accept DE credit, you should consider taking either dual enrollment or the AP equivalent (if offered). You will still have the extra challenge & receive higher quality instruction than regular high school classes.
Method #3: Credit By Examination
Student of all ages can benefit from credit by examination or as I call it, “The No College Debt Way.” This method allows you to test for college credit on knowledge you already know with 60+ subjects to choose from. You might not even have to sit through the first lecture of the subject you decide to test for credit. This is the most time effective method, because you are not required to complete a certain amount of coursework over an entire school year before taking the test.
How It Works
Originally targeted for military & adult learners, there are two testing programs that are widely accepted by most colleges & universities across the nation, CLEP and DSST. The first program, CLEP, is administered by the College Board Yes, that same company that also administers the SAT & Advanced Placement (method #1).
Each company offers tests for different tests, so you will probably take tests from both companies if you earn several credits using this method. When ready to test, you go to a local testing center (normally the nearby college) and take the timed exam on a computer or paper, depending on the exam. Each test costs $80 plus a testing center fee.
Both tests are scored on a pass/fail basis and not count towards your high school or college GPA. CLEP exam scores range from 20 (bad) to 80 (good) with 50 being the minimum passing score. The DSST exam scoring ranges from 200 to 500 with 400 as the minimum passing score. Depending on the exam, you will either earn credit equivalent for one or two semesters.
Highly selective colleges will require scores above 50 or 500 in order to earn college credit for the course. If you score high enough on the CLEP American Government, then you will earn the semester equivalent of college credit for that course and without sitting through the first lecture!
An ideal opportunity to take these exams would be immediately after taking courses during the school year, before you forget any information. Why sit (& pay) to sit through the same class again at college, for information you were already taught only a year or two before?
Real Life Example
My wife was able to earn a bachelor’s degree through credit by examination. It only took her a year & cost less than one year’s tuition at a traditional college without sitting in a classroom. You can read how she did it & how you can apply credit by examination to earning a college degree as well.
She will be the first to admit that this option takes hard work and dedication. The tests can be difficult & she failed two tests (out of 35 total tests). Remember there is no 100% guarantee you will credit with every AP or DE class either.
Even if you cannot earn your entire associate’s or bachelor’s degree using this method like my wife, it can save you thousands of dollars and possibly a year or two from attending a regular college for 4 (or 5) years to graduate.
Advantages of Credit By Examination
- Anybody can take the test…homeschoolers, high school students, working adults, & military personnel.
- Do not need to attend class to take the test.
- Tests are accepted for credit at most colleges!
- Can save you lots of money & time that would have been spent at college otherwise.
- Liberal Arts majors can earn the most credits.
- Tests can be taken throughout the year.
Disadvantages of Credit By Examination
- Requires self-study or prior knowledge of material to pass the exam.
- Exams are difficult, so you must have a thorough understanding of the material to pass.
- Students who need classroom structure or accountability may struggle with this method.
- Scores do not count towards college GPA or high school GPA.
- Students majoring in hard sciences or engineering have limited number of available tests.
Ideal Students For Credit By Examination
The students who are most likely to succeed with credit by examination are ones who can self-study & do not need a teacher to understand the course material. Homeschool students will probably thrive with this method.
Students who want to maximize their high school education by immediately testing on material they just learned can greatly benefit from this option. You might have to supplement your study material before taking the test depending on how advanced the high school class is, but the exam fees & the cost of a study guide is significantly cheaper than enrolling in a professor led course.
Liberal arts majors stand to benefit the most from this option as a majority of the 60+ exams offered by CLEP & DSST focus on traditional liberal arts subjects like foreign language, history, english, social sciences, and lower-level math.
Engineering & Science majors can also use this option to earn credit for their non-science electives. By testing out of electives with tests like CLEP’s History of the United States I & II or College Composition, you can lighten your course load & focus on classes specific to your major.
Finally, credit by examination is an excellent option for any person who does not or cannot set aside four years for the normal college experience immediately after high school. This option allows you to keep your regular job or be a parent, while still earning credit for a college degree.
Summary Of All Three Methods
Now that we have covered all three methods, let’s do a brief recap on what option might be best for you.
#1: Advanced Placement
- Best for students who desire the traditional class structure to learn the material and will be attending a private or out-of-state college that does not accept dual enrollment from their school.
- Students who will be attending an in-state college but no dual enrollment equivalent is available.
- Student who do not attend a high school with AP program can still take the May exam.
#2 Dual Enrollment
- Best for students who will be attending a public, in-state college.
- Higher probability of in-state colleges accepting DE classes compared to AP exam scores.
- Course material is very similar to Advanced Placement, both teach college-level curriculum.
# 3 Credit By Examination
- Students of all backgrounds & ages can take these tests.
- Accepted by most colleges, although some require higher scores than others.
- Not required to attend class in order to take the exam.
These are the three different options a high school student can use to earn college credit before earning a college diploma. The third method, credit by examination, can be used by any student regardless of age or school you attend.
If you are currently utilizing any of the above methods to earn college credit while in high school, congratulations on getting a head start on your college degree!
To ask any questions or share your experience with any of these methods, please feel free to leave a comment or send an e-mail to: email@example.com
Have you earned any college credit while in high school?
Charles Kemp says
When I was in high school, it was encouraged to get college credit as soon as you could. Some people graduated with an Associate’s degree. What I like now is that there are continuing programs for adults to help them finish their college credit and get a degree. This gives hope to people that had to drop out for one reason or another.
That is awesome that your high school encouraged this type of credit, whether it is getting credit for general courses like English or Math or technical classes such as auto repair, anything is better than nothing. And the prevalence of adult programs is great too as any adult can finally earn their degree on their time while balancing work & family. At No College Debt, we hope to help teens and adults to earn college credit efficiently and affordably even if it’s only one class at a time!
Thanks for visiting and for the encouragement!