Start early and save big: The benefits of earning college credit during high school
Too many talented students pass up opportunities to earn college credits during their high school years for just a tiny fraction of what they will pay later in freshman tuition. Understanding the options that may be available to you at your high school is step one. Step two is exploring the policies of each of your prospective colleges with regard to awarding post-secondary credits earned prior to matriculation. What follows is an overview of AP, IB, CLEP, and dual enrollment options and how they have the potential to save you tens of thousands of dollars at almost any college or university in the United States.
Advanced Placement (AP)
Advanced Placement tests cost $91 a pop and can earn you between three and eight college credits a piece. The math on this trade-off is nothing short of astonishing. The average private college costs over $31,000 per year in tuition. That’s for 30 credits which translates to over $1,000 per credit. In this example, passing just one AP test can save you between 3-8 thousand bucks. You would be hard-pressed to get that kind of return on a $91 investment if Gordon Gekko or heck, even Nostradamus, was your financial advisor.
Only a handful of the most-selective schools in the country will not award college credit for a strong performance on the AP exam. For example, Dartmouth stopped granting AP credit starting with the class of 2018, Brown sets their policies on a departmental basis (i.e. no AP credit is given for Chemistry or Computer Science but is granted for History or Biology), and Princeton offers credit for some courses, but deems quite a few to not be a direct replacement for any course at their university and thus not an acceptable substitute.
Most schools accept AP credits with open arms although the minimal level of performance varies. Boston University, like many selective institutions only accepts scores of 4s and 5s on the AP exam and, in some cases, a distinction made between the two. In evaluating AP Biology scores, BU will award 8 credits for a 5 on the AP exam and 4 credits for those who scored a 4. Yet many colleges, even selective ones, award credits for a 3 on an AP exam in all or at least some subjects. The University of Chicago will award some level of credit for a 3 in foreign language or physics. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will grant three credits for each score of 3 on an AP exam and will typically offer even more credits for scores of 4 or 5. Syracuse University accepts 3s on some tests and requires 4s on others.
In sum, whether you are eyeing a less-selective or super-prestigious college, it pays to take as many AP courses as you can handle without driving yourself nuts. Not only will the rigorous course load look good from an admissions standpoint, but the financial rewards can be immense.
International Baccalaureate (IB)
International Baccalaureate courses are very popular outside of the U.S., but a growing number of American high schools now offer students a chance to earn college credit through the IB program. Unlike with AP, IB tests require a student to have completed an IB course prior to sitting for the exam. However, not all schools in the U.S. will offer credit for singular IB test scores but rather require the completion of a comprehensive IB diploma.
The IB diploma takes teens two years to complete and required courses in six disciplines. While the AP curriculum allows students to play to their strengths, the IB diploma program takes a more holistic approach and forces students to master not only traditional subjects like experimental science and math but also learn a foreign language, write an essay, complete a community service project, and pass tests in every single content area. IB exams are scored on a 1-7 scale with 4 generally being considered as passing (like a 3 on the AP).
It’s a common misconception that IB credits are not widely recognized by the colleges and universities in the U.S. While this was a fairly accurate assessment a handful of years ago, today almost 1,700 American post-secondary school award credit for IB. As with AP, individual school’s policies vary and need to be explored on a case-by-case basis.
The University of Florida will give you 3-4 credits for a score of a 4 and 6-8 credits for anything above a 5. The prestigious Barnard College will award 30 credits for the IB diploma if the aggregate score of all six tests is a 30. Caltech will not give credit for any IB coursework, however, they do not grant credit for AP either.
College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
CLEP exams are a lesser-known option for earning college credits, and you can do so by paying a relatively small fee of $80 and demonstrating sufficient knowledge in one of 33 different areas. Administered by the College Board, the same company who runs AP and the SAT, CLEP exams are accepted by over 2,900 colleges and universities.
Since there is no accompanying course for CLEP exams, you are pretty much on your own in terms of preparation. Pick up a CLEP study guide for ten bucks, get a sense of the material covered, take a sample test, and if you feel like you have a firm grasp on the material, give it a try. The best time to do this is typically right after completing high school coursework that is relevant to the exam. Maybe you just finished an honors economics course and feel like you understand the material at a “college-level.” Your knowledge gained in the classroom plus your self-directed independent study should be a solid recipe for success on the CLEP.
Even though the vast majority of institutions will award credit for strong test scores, it is especially important to check the policies of individual schools related to CLEP. Many schools will only accept exams that they feel directly match up to a component of their own core curriculum. At Elon University, only 6 of the 33 CLEP exams can be substituted for undergraduate credit. At Denison, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, CLEP scores must be at or above the 75th percentile in order to receive credit. The University of North Carolina – Charlotte is more generous and accepts all but a few CLEP tests with much lower required scores than the previous two schools.
Rather than a simulated college atmosphere, as with AP or IB, dual enrollment is an option that affords teens the chance to actually immerse themselves in a college environment while they are still in high school. Typically the participating post-secondary school will be a community college or local branch campus of a larger state university. Students typically utilize dual enrollment opportunities to either knock out core courses that will be requirements at their prospective colleges or to sample an academic offering that may be unavailable at their high school (i.e. a less commonly studies foreign language or computer science course).
Numerous studies have found that participation in dual enrollment aids college readiness and persistence. If that isn’t reason enough for you to consider this option, taking college courses during high school can, as with AP, IB, and CLEP, lop off a sizable portion of your freshman bill.
Finding out whether your future college will accept dual enrollment credits is relatively easy—a simple internet search will usually do the trick. There are a few schools that have more stringent policies. Rice University will consider previously-earned college credits but not if they appear on your high school transcript as dual credit. On the other hand, the University of Texas at Austin does accept credits earned in this manner. As a general rule, public schools are far more open to honoring dual enrollment credits than private schools, especially of the elite variety.
A great many students pursue a rigorous college-level course of study in high school purely from an admissions-driven mindset. We encourage you expand your thinking, considering the enormous financial advantages that can be obtained as you simultaneously complete challenging coursework that will prepare you for a successful college experience.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).