A Parent’s Guide to The Best Options for College Credit in High School

There’s no denying it: college is expensive. According to US News and World Report, for the 2022-2023 academic year, the average tuition and fees for public in-state college is $10,423. That more than doubles to $22,953 for a public out-of-state college. When you look at private schools, the average is a whopping $39,723. 

The first two years at most colleges, the Core Requirement years, are essentially a repeat of high school classes. There are classes for English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language. 

But what if a student can take those courses in high school at low or no cost, and possibly earn both high school and college credit? The savings for time and money are a great option. Three main ways to get college credit for core-level classes are by taking the AP exam, taking a CLEP exam, or completing a class through dual enrollment. 

Which is best for your student? Here are the basics about these options.

Advanced Placement (AP)

The option that most families are familiar with is credit through the College Board’s AP exams.

Generally, students in public, private, or charter schools who offer AP courses will sign up for them as part of their regular school schedule. Most of the classes cover a full year (an exception being some of the social studies courses, like US Government, which can be only a semester-long class). 

During the year, students take this class just like any other high school class. Sometimes AP courses include practice exams.

In May, students sit for an exam covering the material in the course. The exams are generally during the school day and last three hours each. 

The exam consists of multiple-choice and free-response questions. The type of free-response questions varies based on the type of exam. For instance, an English exam will often have an essay to show proficiency in writing or analysis of literature. The computer science exam may require creating a block of code. The calculus exam may require showing step-by-step work on a mathematical problem.

The multiple-choice segments receive scores and the free-response segments receive grades according to an established rubric. The combined scores are then awarded a point value from 1 through 5.

Generally, scores of 1 and 2 do not award any college credit. Scores of three may award college credit, and scores of 4 and 5 do award college credit at any participating college or university.

There can be some variation in what courses are covered by passing scores. For instance, passing the calculus exam may waive any course of calculus or lower at the college level.

Also, the score may determine how many credits are awarded. A 3 on an AP English Language course may award one semester of credit for Freshman Composition at the college level. A score of a 4 or 5 may award a full year of credit.

Pros and Cons

Pros: For most students attending public, private, or charter schools, there are no costs for the class or the exam. 

The AP score does not usually factor into the course grade – in other words, if you score a 1 on the AP exam, you may still receive a good grade for the course in school.

AP exams are recognized at a variety of colleges and universities around the world, and there are guides to show exactly what each course will provide in terms of college credit.

Cons: The exam is lengthy, and the combination of multiple choice and free response may not meet the needs of all learners.

Because AP exams are at specific dates or times, some students may have an AP exam in the morning and a different one in the afternoon, for 6 full hours of testing in a single day.

AP exams can be made up, but only on select dates in June.

For homeschool students, or students attending schools where not all AP exams are offered, accessibility to the exams can be hit or miss, especially for some of the lesser-done topics.

You can retake an AP exam, however, schools will generally not pay for a second time. Both scores go to colleges on transcripts unless you request for one of the scores to be withheld. 

Classes can be limited based on what a school offers. In all, there are 38 subjects offered for AP exams, but most schools will not offer all 38 options.

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)

CLEP exams are similar in many ways to the AP exams, just without a course to go along with them. When many people talk about “CLEPing” out of a college class, the implication is that they have enough background knowledge to pass a final exam on the material without having to sit through a class.

According to Study.com, CLEP exams are seen as an easier alternative to AP exams, due to their pass rates – a 68% pass rate for CLEP compared with a 65% pass rate for AP. One possible reason for this is that more students take AP exams (over 5,000,000 in a recent year) than CLEP tests (around 170,000 in that same year).

There is no standard curriculum to prepare for a CLEP test, although there are companies that sell study guides, sample tests, or preparation classes. Like the AP exams, CLEP tests are run by the College Board. 

CLEP exams are generally 90-minutes in length and mostly multiple-choice questions. Some may also include an essay section (for example, in the College Composition test) or listening section (for example, in World Language exams).

Exams can be scheduled throughout the year, and both in-person and online tests are available. 

Test scores range from 20 to 80, and generally a 50 is a passing score for college credit (the equivalent of a “C” in a college course), although some colleges may require a “B-level” score, which varies by course.

Each CLEP exam costs $85, and you can retake the test after 3 months (although you will have to pay the test fee again). If you fail a CLEP test the first time and pass it on a subsequent retake, the failed score will be dropped.  

Pros and Cons

Pros: At $85 for a test, this is cheaper than taking a comparable 3-credit college course.

No courses or specialized test prep is required. If you know the material comparable to a college course, you can even take the exam without any preparation. 

The shorter exam time and multiple-choice format may be easier for some students.

Multiple locations and dates, plus online options, for exams make it easier to find one that meets personal schedules.

It is easier to find a testing option for any CLEP test instead of just what a local school offers for an AP exam.

Cons: CLEP tests are only accepted at about 3,000 colleges nationwide. Some selective or top-ranked colleges may not accept CLEP credit.

There are no study materials or curriculum officially endorsed by the College Board. 

CLEP tests do not provide any benefit to high school GPA, whereas AP courses are often weighted classes, whether or not the exam is taken or passed.

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment

is exactly what it sounds like, being enrolled in college and high school at the same time. Generally, dual enrollment options exist at community colleges. Most students take classes at their local community college, however dual enrollment can be outside of their school’s service area.

Classes can be taken in person at the college campus, but many students prefer to take them online.

Students in high school taking dual enrollment classes take the same classes alongside college undergraduates. The material, testing schedule, and grades are the same, but high school credit is provided in addition to college credit.

For example, if you take a dual enrollment course in chemistry, it would count for a high school science credit towards graduation as well as an undergraduate science credit at the college.

College credits may be able to be transferred to other colleges, but you’ll need to check with a college’s admissions counselor for details on what courses transfer towards which credits.

In the state of Florida, high school students participating in dual enrollment do not have to pay for the college courses. There are some requirements, however.

A student must be enrolled in a Florida public or nonpublic secondary school (Grades 6-12) or as a home education student, have an unweighted high school GPA of 3.0 to enroll in classes for college credit (or a 2.0 for courses towards career dual enrollment).

In addition, most colleges require some form of placement test, such as the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT), SAT, or ACT. Individual colleges may have additional requirements.

Students can take classes available during the school day, after school hours, or even over summer break. As long as a student remains with a GPA in good standing, they can take a wide variety of classes, but no more than 15 credit hours per semester.

Pros and Cons

Pros: For Florida’s dual enrollment program, the state covers the cost of all classes, lab fees, and even textbooks. 

This is the same college education that students would need to pay for after graduation–just free of charge.

Dual enrollment provides an easy path for admission into the college where the student has completed dual enrollment courses. 

Because these are college courses, they do not rely on a single test at the end of the course for determining credit. Credit is determined by passing the course based on all the grades throughout the course.

Dual enrollment college courses are more diverse than what is offered at the high school level, allowing students to find courses that have appeal for them.

Students can start to experience the “college atmosphere” by starting to explore campus activities.

Cons: This is college coursework, and so it does go on a student’s college transcript. If a student does poorly, this can impact admission to other colleges, academic standing, and financial aid.

On-site classes can be problematic for younger students who may not have transportation of their own or who may feel uncomfortable in a large college campus setting. 

Even though the material may be similar, the pressure of taking a college class can be too much for some younger students. 

Admission requirements for college dual enrollment vary – parents and students will need to research an individual college’s requirements to make sure they have all required placement tests and registration criteria completed by college deadlines. 

Students who complete more than one year of college courses as a dual enrollment student may be cut out of some scholarship programs based on the number of credits they have earned.

Students can start to experience the “college atmosphere”, which may be challenging for students who are not yet emotionally ready for adult life.

Which Option Is Best?

There’s no right answer to which option is best. It is up to parents, guidance counselors, and the student themselves to look at the various options to decide.

In addition, other options (like college credit through an International Baccalaureate program)  may be options at certain schools.

If your child is interested in getting a head start on college credit before leaving high school, it can be a tremendous financial benefit with low- or no-cost options. But it can also provide added stress to those challenging high school years.

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Julia Mascardo