College Credit in High School: What You Need to Know

College Credit in High School: What You Need to Know

It’s the spring semester, which means, if you have a high schooler, they’ve started thinking about their schedule for next year. In the last decade or so, education systems have been pushing their students to earn college credit while still in high school, but making the right decision about that can be confusing and difficult. In my 15 years as an educator, I’ve had experience with the four most common ways for students to earn college credit while in high school: I’ve been a college adjunct/dual enrollment instructor, I’ve taught Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and I’ve designed courses around preparing my students for CLEP tests.  There are pros and cons to every option. Here is what you need to know and consider when helping your child to make the right decision for them.

This post contains a lot of valuable information about the different college credit offerings in high school. If you would like to jump straight to a specific section, please click below:

Dual Enrollment | Advanced Placement | College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) | International Baccalaureate (IB) | Bonus: Certifications | Final Considerations

Dual Enrollment

Dual Enrollment credit has gained popularity and momentum in the last few years. There are many benefits to Dual Enrollment, but there are also several caveats that students should be aware of before committing to a Dual Enrollment course.

Dual Enrollment means that students are dually enrolled as both a high school student and a college student. In many schools, this also means they will receive dual credit.  For example, at my school, a student who is enrolled in Dual Enrollment English Composition receives a high school credit for English IV, which is a graduation requirement. They also receive college credit for English Comp I in the fall semester and English Comp II in the spring semester. All together, a student can earn a high school graduation credit and 6 college credit hours by taking just one course for one year in high school, and that’s just for one subject. A student who does the same thing with other dual enrollment courses offered through their high school could potentially knock out a semester or more of general education college courses by the time they graduate high school. Further sweetening the deal is the fact that many public schools pay for their students to take dual enrollment courses, meaning students can earn all of those college credits at no cost to them. Additionally, most high schools assign a supervising teacher to teach or oversee the dual enrollment course, so students have the assistance and guidance of a secondary teacher as they complete the course.

The time and money that one can save by taking Dual Enrollment courses might make them seem like a no-brainer, but dual enrollment also has a lot of stipulations that often catch students by surprise once it’s too late to change their minds. First, students and parents need to be aware that the college credit for a Dual Enrollment course is only guaranteed at the college through which the credit was earned. Whether or not another college chooses to give the student credit for the course is at that school’s discretion. For example, if your student takes a Dual Enrollment course through the University of New Orleans, then the only college that has to give them credit is UNO. Most state schools, like LSU and Southeastern, will still give them credit, but once you start looking at private schools and out-of-state schools, there is absolutely no assurance that your child’s college will give them credit for the Dual Enrollment course they took. Additionally, once a student signs up for a Dual Enrollment course, they officially become a college student, which also means their college transcript begins. Dual Enrollment courses are not easy, especially for 12th graders struggling with severe cases of senioritis. If a student does not do well in a Dual Enrollment course, the grade they earn in that course will stay on their college transcript and affect their college GPA, even if they end up going to a college other than the one that offered the Dual Enrollment course. For students hoping to earn and maintain academic scholarships, a low grade in a Dual Enrollment course can hurt their chances. Even worse, a student who fails the college course could also fail the dual enrolled high school credit, which means they might have to retake the high school course or may not graduate on time.

Even if a student plans to go to the college through which they are earning the credit and is confident that they will do well in class, it is still important that they know exactly what credit they are earning at that college, as not all Dual Enrollment course will help them with their area of study. For example, one year some of my high school students, all interested in pursuing careers in the medical field, jumped at the chance to take a Dual Enrollment Biology class that was being offered through the school I was teaching at. They all did quite well in the course and were excited to earn their college credit, but when they registered for classes at the college the next fall, they were told that the Dual Enrollment course had been Biology for non-majors, and they would still have to take the Biology class for science majors. They were still awarded credit for the Dual Enrollment course, but they had to take the class again in order for it to count toward their degree, and they hadn’t really saved themselves any time or money.

Before registering your child for Dual Enrollment courses, ask your school about the cost to students, the teacher support they will receive, and the specific college credits they will earn. Find out what the deadlines and options for dropping or changing classes are if your child struggles, and check out this state chart for college credit equivalencies. Also, if your child is considering private or out-of-state schools, start researching what credits they will accept through Dual Enrollment.

Advanced Placement (AP)

Advanced Placement courses are the O.G. way to earn college credit in high school. Advanced Placement, run by CollegeBoard, has been around since the 1950s. AP courses are demanding, college-level courses offered to high school students interested in earning college credit and challenging themselves academically. At the end of the course of study, students take an AP Exam, which is scored on a scale of 0 to 5. A score of 3 is considered a passing score by CollegeBoard and is viewed as evidence that the student has gained the skill and knowledge to be awarded college credit for the course. There are many benefits to Advanced Placement courses in high schools, the most notable being that the rigorous nature of the course truly prepares students for the fast-paced and self-directed challenges of college, but like Dual Enrollment, there are some important conditions to consider.

As with Dual Enrollment, if students take multiple AP courses, they can knock out a semester or more of college credit. AP credits are much more universally recognized than Dual Enrollment credits, though students still may run into the issue of a credit not being the right credit for a certain course of study. Most colleges in the United States and many international schools will give students college credit for their passing AP scores; however, colleges will still place stipulations on the scores they are willing to award credit for. While CollegeBoard says a 3 is a passing score, some colleges may only award credit for a 4, or even a 5, and the required score may differ from course to course. That said, the score a student earns on the AP Exam is separate from their actual high school grade and credit, which means that failing to “pass” the exam does not affect the student’s GPA (high school or college) or their ability to graduate. In fact, CollegeBoard encourages any student who is willing to challenge themselves to take AP courses, regardless of the likelihood that they will actually “pass” the exam.

I’ll admit that as a former AP student and an AP teacher, I am partial to AP, but it is definitely not the right choice for everyone. If your child is considering AP, ask the high school what its AP pass rate is and check with the colleges your child is interested in to see what the required score is for college credit. Check out CollegeBoard’s website for more information on AP courses and Exams.

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)

CLEP stands for College-Level Examination Program. The program is also run by CollegeBoard and offers 34 different exams that assess the knowledge and skills that students would gain in the corresponding college courses. Unlike Dual Enrollment and Advanced Placement, there is no associated course of study required for CLEP and it does not impact the student’s high school progress or GPA in any way. Students can sign up for and take as many CLEP exams as they would like. In some cases, high schools will attach a CLEP test to a particular course and may even pay for students to take CLEP tests, but in most cases, students are on their own to sign up for and pay for the test. The tests cost $93 each. In theory, a student could once again knock out a semester or more of college credits by passing several CLEP tests, but as with the previous options, there are some important things to consider before signing up for a CLEP test.

Most high school classes do not cover the breadth and depth of a college course, and some don’t align the curriculum the way they used to, so just because your child took a class by the same name in high school and did well does not mean they will pass the CLEP test on that subject. For example, when I was growing up, English classes typically covered American Literature in junior year and British Literature in senior year. This is no longer the case, so I typically discourage my students from signing up for the American Literature and English Literature CLEP tests because, unless their teacher has offered a more traditional approach to the course, they don’t have the focused knowledge necessary to be successful on those exams. In most cases, students who sign up for a CLEP test will need to study independently and may even need to purchase exam-prep materials, which are an added cost. Additionally, while CLEP is more universally accepted, like AP, colleges can be very particular about which exams they will award credit for and the minimum score a student must earn to be awarded credit. They may also limit the number of credits they will award for CLEP exams.

If your child is considering taking some CLEP exams, find out whether the high school offers CLEP testing and what the registration and costs are for students. If the high school does not offer CLEP testing, you will have to find a local testing center and register and pay for that test on your own. In either case, reflect on whether your child has the ability and discipline to study for the exam on their own. Finally, check out the CLEP website to determine whether or not the colleges your child is interested in accept CLEP scores for credit and what their minimum score requirements are.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

International Baccalaureate (IB) is not widely available in Louisiana, but it is quite common in other parts of the United States and many other countries. International Baccalaureate is an advanced program that offers students the opportunity to earn a secondary-level international diploma in addition to their high school diploma. Unlike Dual Enrollment, AP, and CLEP, IB does not focus on individual courses. Instead, it is a comprehensive program that offers students college-level curriculum in their junior and senior years, with most IB programs offering preparatory paths in earlier years. While the student’s course grades and GPA are linked to their course work and the development of their major program assessments, their actual assessment scores and the achievement of their international diploma are separate from their high school diploma and graduation.

IB courses are not as commonly awarded course-based college credits as the other options, but the intensive nature of the IB program ensures students are better prepared for the challenges of college, especially when it comes to critical thinking and research skills. While many universities might not award college credit for the IB courses, they do recognize the challenging nature of the program when considering admissions and scholarships. Also, if the college your child wants to attend does not award college credit for IB courses, your child is likely to be successful on the corresponding CLEP exams because of the IB courses they took.

Over the last two decades, colleges have increasingly reported that Freshman students are woefully unprepared for the challenges of college, and as a former college instructor, I saw that firsthand. Students who participate in an IB program do not have these deficits and often stand out among their peers once they begin their college courses. IB courses also emphasize student-led inquiry, which often leads to students discovering a passion or interest they wish to pursue in college and a greater sense of direction about their future than many other graduating seniors have. Additionally, some IB programs offer a career-based path, which provides students with real-world experience and certifications related to their chosen career.

If an IB program is available near you, I encourage you to reach out to the IB coordinator at the school to learn about the options and benefits of the local program.

Bonus: Certifications

Most high schools offer a variety of certifications that students can earn through their high school courses. While many of these are computer-based certifications, such as Microsoft and Google Suite certifications, high schools are increasingly bringing in additional career-related certifications, such as First-Responder. While an individual certification is unlikely to be accepted as a replacement for a full college course, a collection of related certifications may earn a student credit for a full course or exempt the student from certain course requirements in their college courses. These certifications can also give the student a leg up if they wish to be accepted into certain programs at their college, if they apply for internships, and/or if they want to apply for jobs while in college. If you don’t know what certifications are available to your child, reach out to your child’s school counselor.

Final Considerations

These days, there are many options for students to earn college credit in high school, but not all options are available or right for every student.

In my opinion, if your child is planning to stay in-state for college and wants to save time and money in pursuit of their college degree, Dual Enrollment and CLEP Exams are great choices. If, however, your child wants to attend a competitive college or university or go to college out of state, AP and IB will look better on their college application and more thoroughly prepare them for the challenges of college.

Also, there is absolutely no need to double up. In most cases, colleges will award the same course credits for similar courses. For example, Dual Enrollment English Comp I, AP Language, and CLEP College Composition will generally equate to Composition 101 at any college that awards credit for those courses, so your child does not need to take Dual Enrollment English if they’ve already passed the CLEP College Composition Exam or vice versa.

Finally, despite all of the pressures you and your child might feel to take advantage of college credit opportunities in high school, it is not necessary and it’s completely okay if your child just fulfills basic graduation requirements. Our education system has a bad habit of pushing students to achieve things that are not developmentally appropriate or for which students simply are not ready. It’s okay if your child is not academically ready for the challenges of a college course now or if s/he simply needs to mature before they can handle the self-discipline that is needed to be successful in these advanced courses. They may be much more successful in college if they are allowed to continue working at the level they are at instead of being forced to struggle, because in the end, success in these courses is the ultimate goal.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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