How to graduate early: earning college credits in high school
You may be able to save money by getting college credits in high school.
Investigate options like AP, CLEP, IB, and dual enrollment to find the best for you.
Read college transfer credit policies carefully to ensure your credits don’t go to waste.
Prioritize certain subjects to maximize the college credits you get in high school.
In-state tuition in 2020–21 averaged $9k a year – $21k when including room and board and additional expenses. Earning college credits in high school through credit-by-examination or dual enrollment could realistically save you a semester of university and around $10.5k. For the extremely ambitious, it may be possible to save up to $42k and shave up to 2 years from your college completion time.
The advantages of earning college credit in high school are not limited to cost savings. As of 2016, 41% of student don’t graduate college within 4 years. Unfortunately, graduation rates are closely correlated to income level. Students from economically unstable backgrounds have many concerns that can impede timely graduation. Any additional credits you earn in high school can increase your chances of graduating – whether by freeing up time for part-time work or allowing for a semester off while maintaining a reasonable graduation timeline.
You need 120 college credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. The most common way to earn some of these in high school is by taking college-level courses that culminate in a test, often referred to as credit-by-examination.
What is credit-by-examination?
Credit-by-examination is an arrangement that let’s you receive college credit simply by passing an exam.
Besides giving you a taste of the academic rigor of university, college-level courses:
- look great on your resume
- may improve your competitiveness as a college applicant
- may improve your GPA, as some states apply a weighted GPA system to advanced classes, assigning them extra points
- could save you money and time
Note that it’s the exam score that matters when it comes to earning college credit, not your actual grade for the class. The most popular credit-by-examination programs are listed below.
AP (Advanced Placement) classes
AP classes, which are offered at most high schools, culminate in an exam that’s graded on a scale of 1 to 5 . A 3 is a pass, but many colleges only accept a 4 or 5. Most colleges will give you 3 to 5 credits for a good AP score.
IB (International Baccalaureate)
IB is a 2-year program offered at certain high schools that results in an IB diploma, although you can also take IB classes individually. Aim to score at least a 5 or 6 out of 7 to get college credit. An IB diploma could get you as many as 30 college credits.
CLEP (College-Level Examination Program)
CLEP exams are subject tests that are not attached to a class or program, so you can take them whenever you’re ready. Even once in college, you can use CLEP to take care of some general ed classes. CLEP requires enough self-discipline or preliminary knowledge to study independently.
CLEP can earn you 3 or more college credits for each exam you pass.
Cambridge AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education)
Mainly available in Florida high schools, students take 7 AICE classes and emerge with an AICE diploma. Exams are graded A* to “ungraded”. The lowest passing score, E, is the equivalent of a 3 on the AP exam.
To maximize your chances of getting college credit, take the full AICE program and aim for a score of at least C (roughly equivalent of an AP 4) on each exam.
Strategies for earning college credits in high school
Even if you pack your high school schedule with college-level classes, earning college credits is not guaranteed. Here are some strategies you can use to increase your chances of skipping a semester or more of college using acceleration options like credit-by-exam.
1. Make sure your exams cover a diverse range of subjects
The college credits you earn in high school are most likely to be applied to entry-level and general education courses. Gen Ed classes can be surprisingly difficult to fit into your college schedule, which could potentially delay graduation. Taking care of them in high school can help you avoid this stumbling block, saving you time and money.
What are general education (Gen Ed) requirements?
Gen Ed requirements are classes outside of your major that most colleges require you to take in order to have a well-rounded education. These usually include writing, math, science, and humanities components. Gen Ed classes can account for a third or up to a half of all the classes you need to earn a bachelor’s.
Take a look at the Gen Ed requirements and credit-by-exam policies of the colleges you are interested in.
To prevent Gen Ed classes from slowing down your graduation timeline, aim to knock them out in high school by taking a wide range of college-level courses in different subjects. If you’re enrolled in an IB or AIECS program, opt for the full course of study.
Be mindful of “junk credits”
Not all the credits you earn in high school will be accepted by your college. In fact, you may end up with too many credits that you can’t apply anywhere. If you get a 5 on 6 humanities-related AP exams, then major in English, your college could grant you 30 credits that don’t count for any Gen Ed or major requirements other than 1 or 2 entry-level classes. This is more dangerous than it sounds: you could lose your financial aid if you earn more than 150 college credits.
2. Be strategic about your courses and exams
Although taking lots of different college-level courses is optimal, some students may not have the energy or resources to study for 8 different exams.
AP exams are challenging, and students need to be prepared for college-level instruction. This may be a predicament for students in low-income school districts, who stand to benefit most from credit-by-exam schemes.
For a variety of reasons, low-income students have less access to AP and tend to score lower on the exams. Some studies indicate that students who take an AP class only to fail the exam are no more likely to graduate college than those who don’t take any AP classes at all. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – if you can’t reasonably expect to pass the exam, don’t take the course.
Here are some tips on how to strategically choose which exams to opt for:
- Keep in mind that some exams are worth more college credit than others. For example, foreign language tests could earn you 15 credits. This is because getting a high score on a language exam means you have roughly the same skill level as someone who took 3 college language classes. Most other exams are equivalent to just 1 class.
- Math exams also tend to be worth a lot of credit. As you can see in Washington State University’s AP policy, the university awards 3 or 4 credits for most exams, but gives 8 credits for passing the AP Calculus BC test. Tricky science exams also pack a bigger punch.
- Another strategy could be taking a greater number of easier exams. It’s hard to pinpoint which exams are easiest, so think about where your talents lie. Consult with your teachers and guidance counselor to plan your high school schedule with college-level classes in mind.
Do you speak a language other than English at home?
Remember you can take college-level exams without taking the corresponding class, and foreign language tests are worth a lot of credit. The CLEP program is designed around this concept. Heritage speakers of languages like Spanish stand to benefit from this trick.
3. Apply for universities with generous transfer credit policies
Just because a college gives credit for advanced courses taken in high school doesn’t mean you can automatically skip a whole year of studies. If your primary goal is to save time and money, pick your college strategically.
- Prioritize state universities. These tend to have more generous transfer credit policies. Certain states even require state schools to honor AP credits. In contrast, some prestigious private schools may not give you any credit at all. For example, the liberal arts college Bowdoin only grants 1 college credit for high exam scores, while Dartmouth and Brown don’t recognize AP credits period. A quick glance at the University of Florida’s policy shows that it is much more generous.
- Make sure you get a high exam score. You won’t automatically get college credit just for taking a college-level class. Many schools require a high score – for example, some colleges only accept 4s and 5s for AP exams.
- Investigate colleges’ credit transfer policies. There may be a cap on the number of credits you can transfer. An example is Macalester College, which only allows students to transfer 20 credits, whereas the maximum at University of Florida is 45. Other schools may have very specific Gen Ed requirements that prevent students from using the credits they earned in high school; in fact, 86% of top American colleges limit AP credits in some way.
Dual enrollment is when you take classes at a college while still in high school, earning credit for both. These courses are usually run in conjunction with local community colleges, but there are programs at 4-year universities too. With dual enrollment, you could graduate high school with an associate degree. According to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, 21% of high school students take at least one dual enrollment course, and they are available to 83% of students in America.
Dual enrollment students graduate college faster and more reliably than students who don’t take any college classes in high school, according to one study, which even shows that dual enrollment students tend to complete their degree a year earlier than their peers.
Not all learners are a good fit for dual enrollment. For some, AP-type classes may be a better option – because you take AP at your high school, you have more support from your teachers and counselors.
On the other hand, studies show that dual enrollment is a relatively popular option for lower-income students and student in rural school districts, who may have less access to AP. Dual enrollment also seems to be better than AP at lowering graduation times.
Concurrent enrollment vs dual enrollment
Dual and concurrent enrollment often mean the same thing, but each state uses the terms slightly differently. For example, in Arizona, dual enrollment programs are run in partnership with community colleges, whereas concurrent enrollment refers to high schoolers taking classes at a 4-year university.
How dual enrollment works
Many important factors about dual enrollment vary significantly from state to state and program to program. Here are key points to watch out for:
- You may need to pay dual enrollment fees yourself. In other cases, like in Washington state, the school district foots the bill. But even when it’s the parents who pay, dual enrollment generally remains relatively affordable.
- There may be an application process. This limits the program’s accessibility. Some programs require you to pass an exam, get recommendations from your high school, and/or have good grades.
- You might have to commute to a college campus. This can make it complicated to balance your schedule. Other programs may offer courses on your high school campus or online.
- Like with AP, remember that some universities have limiting transfer credit policies. According to a 2014 study, nearly 40% of students are unable to transfer college credits they earned earlier.
Online dual enrollment programs
If you’re not happy with the dual enrollment programs near you, look for online options. More and more colleges are offering remote dual enrollment, with some, like Howard University, offering college-level courses to low-income students at no cost.
Online classes provide flexibility and empower students to take charge of their own learning. The remote format could make it easier to combine college classes with your high school schedule. Tailored programs such as Howard’s are a promising way for low-income students to earn college credits in high school.
Some real-life examples
Below are profiles of 3 students with different approaches to earning college credit in high school.
Roberto is a goal-oriented guy. One of his aims in life was to get a high-paying business job and buy his own house. He knew he needed a university education, but he was wary of the debt.
By high school, he already knew he wanted to spend as little time in college as possible, so he set himself the goal of graduating in 3 years.
To achieve this, he took a moderate number of AP classes in high school that covered both science and the humanities. He studied hard and mostly got 4s. Because he spoke Spanish at home, that AP test was a breeze.
Roberto was accepted into several prestigious private colleges, but he ended up going to the local state school because they offered him more financial aid and had a generous credit transfer policy.
His AP exams covered many of his school’s Gen Ed requirements. He almost forgot about one required writing course, but he was able to take the CLEP English Composition exam instead, which he studied for independently.
Thanks to his efforts, Roberto achieved his goal of graduating in 3 years, which would have been impossible without earning college credits in high school.
Helen loves learning and has always prided herself on her academic prowess. She dreamed of going to an Ivy League school one day and maybe becoming a scientist.
She signed up for the challenging, college-level IB program that her high school offered, acing all 6 exams and earning herself an IB diploma.
Helen knew that she could potentially get 30 college credits from IB if she went to the nearby state school, but this wasn’t a priority for her. Instead, the IB program was more about embellishing her college resume and getting into the best school possible than accelerating graduation.
Helen settled on an elite private school.
She did end up transferring her IB credits to college, which allowed her to skip certain entry-level classes, but she found that she was less well prepared for the subsequent course material than other students who had taken the 101 classes in college.
Many of her other IB college credits didn’t help her fulfill her Gen Ed requirement, but they were counted as a part of her total credits anyway.
Helen eventually decided to double-major in computer science and linguistics. These two programs involved considerable coursework, so she had a packed schedule – so much so that she was afraid of overstepping the 150-credit threshold for financial aid eligibility.
That put her in a sticky situation: IB had helped her get accepted to an Ivy League, but now she had more college credits than she needed.
In the end, Helen had to pay for an extra semester at college to meet her graduation requirements. She has no regrets – because she loved her time in college – but her choices did have financial repercussions.
Alex grew up in a small rural town. They are a diligent, well-organized student, but they often felt frustrated by the “busy work” in high school, and they found their school’s environment a little infantilizing.
Alex wanted to go to college and move to a bigger city, but they didn’t know what they want to study.
They also knew that good colleges usually require taking a lot of AP classes, but Alex’s small, rural high schools offered just 2 AP options.
At an information session at their high school, Alex learned about dual enrollment. They could attend a community college in the nearest town full-time and even graduate high school with an associate degree.
Because Alex lives in Washington state, their school district pays community college costs – which means they attend practically for free.
Alex enjoyed the independence that community college affords. The long commute was a little annoying, but some of their classes were online, so they didn’t need to drive to college every day. The course options were more interesting, challenging, and flexible than in high school.
One downside was social life – Alex had a hard time befriending the other college students because of the age gap, and they lost their connection with their high-school friends. Sometimes Alex felt like they were missing out on the traditional high school experience; however, they managed to make friends with some of the other dual-enrollment kids.
Upon completion of their senior year, Alex graduated high school with an associate’s degree. They were well prepared to transfer to a nearby 4-year public university, which recognized almost all of the credits they had already earned.
In the end, Alex graduated university with a bachelor’s in accounting in just 2 years – saving them quite a bit of money.
The rising cost of education makes it very wise to search for ways to save money on college. Programs like AP and dual enrollment can help students save on college costs by earning some college credits in high school.
Additionally, all the key benefits of attending college – including marginal income increases, economic mobility, and improved job security – depend on successfully graduating. A good acceleration strategy in high school could increase your chances of graduating from college and reaping those rewards.