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Earning College Credit in High School: What You Need to Know

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Do you want to get a head start on your college education? More and more high school students are finding ways to earn college credit while they’re still enrolled in high school, rather than waiting until they’re officially undergraduates. If you can successfully handle college-level material at a younger age, you might find that there are benefits to taking this path.


Read on to learn more about the various types of programs that will allow you to earn college credit in high school, using these credits later on, and choosing the option that works best for your needs as a high school student.



Why Would You Want to Earn College Credit in High School?


Earning college credit while you’re still in high school can come with significant practical benefits. Though as we’ll discuss below, there are often caveats regarding how and where your credits can be used, earning credits early can help reduce the overall cost of your college education, as well as the time it will take you to earn your bachelor’s degree.


Theoretically, college credits you earn during high school can be applied to your bachelor’s degree, reducing the amount of time you’ll need to spend as a full-time undergraduate student.  For example, if the college credits you earn during high school add up to a semester of college-level work, you might be able to graduate from college in three and a half years rather than the traditional four.


The types of college credits you can earn during high school may also be less expensive on a per-credit basis than a traditional four-year college. The AP program, for instance, involves only a test fee; taking or self-studying an AP course doesn’t cost anything. Community colleges and online courses also tend to be relatively inexpensive, especially given that they don’t include a residential component. Your high school may even have a dual enrollment program (described below) that will cover some of the costs.


Aside from the practical benefits, some students choose to take college-level courses in high school because they’re interested in a more challenging educational experience. This might be a good option for you if you’ve already exhausted the course options at your high school, or if you’d like to explore courses on topics not offered by your school. When application season comes around, many colleges will like that you’ve gone out on a limb to seek out the most challenging coursework possible.



Ways of Earning College Credit in High School


As we’ve mentioned, programs for earning college credit during high school come in several different flavors, from summer programs to in-school options to actually taking classes at a college. While not all of these program types may work for you personally, here are the main categories you’re likely to encounter.



Advanced Placement (AP) Courses and Exams


AP courses and exams, which are very popular in the US, allow you to encounter college-level material in a way that’s targeted at high school students. By taking a designated AP course at your high school or self-studying the material over the course of the school year, you’ll prepare for a major exam that’s held in May. High scores on these exams can translate into college credit or other benefits at college.



International Baccalaureate (IB)


The IB program, available worldwide, involves a two-year curriculum made up of rigorous, high-level courses that teach valuable analytical skills. If you complete this program and earn the IB Diploma, some colleges may award you credit or other benefits. This program is less commonly available in the US, in part because it requires schools and teachers to be specially trained and certified, and self-studying the material is not permitted.



Dual Enrollment


In a dual enrollment program, courses you take at a college (typically a local school) will earn you college credits and simultaneously count toward your high school requirements. For instance, taking an English course at a local college might allow you to earn college credit while also fulfilling the English credit requirement that you need to graduate from high school. In some cases, your high school might even help you pay for the course and books. Check with your school to see if they have a program and consider its details.



Community College and Extension Courses


This approach involves taking college courses independently at a college, whether in person or online, on top of your existing high school workload. Since many colleges require you to have earned your high school diploma before attending, your options will mostly be community colleges. You might also be able to attend courses in the extension department of a college; these courses typically don’t require you to be enrolled in a degree program and are designed for adult enrichment rather than full-time attendance. 



Summer Programs and Courses


Certain summer programs may allow you to take college courses and earn credit on a college campus while you’re still in high school. Some are residential and incorporate other activities, some aren’t; some are specifically for current high school students, but some are attended by current college students as well. Talk to your guidance counselor for more advice, or search for summer programs at a college you’re interested in—that program can even do double duty as a college visit.

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Applying Your College Credits


High school students can take college courses for both personal and practical reasons—there’s nothing wrong with either motivation. However, if you’re specifically interested in the practical benefits, like saving time and money on your education, it’s important that you pay attention not only to the process of earning these credits, but also to how they get applied.


Here’s the basic rule: the college that awards you a degree gets to decide whether credits you earn outside of that college can be applied toward earning that degree. This means that if you earn college credits during high school, and then move on to another college as a full-time undergraduate, your undergraduate institution may decide that the credits you’ve previously earned don’t count or can’t substitute for credits you earn on that campus.


It may be that your eventual college choice has a very specific educational philosophy, and courses taken elsewhere don’t match up with that philosophy well enough to be integrated. It may be that your undergraduate college is doubtful about the quality of the credits you earned during high school. Whatever the reason, you should know that there’s no guarantee your eventual college choice will accept the college credits you earned in high school.


This issue isn’t entirely black and white. Some colleges won’t directly accept previously earned credits, but may allow you to apply previously earned credits for the purposes of meeting distribution requirements or fulfilling prerequisites. For example, if you did well on the AP Chemistry exam in high school, a college might allow you to skip their own introductory chemistry course and take a more advanced course right away. While this won’t make getting your bachelor’s degree faster or cheaper, it can give you the ability to take more interesting and useful courses during the time you  spend as a full-time college student.


It can be hard to find information about whether your credits will transfer before you actually matriculate as an undergraduate. Policies may also change over time, or may be different for different majors. Speak to an admissions officer for the most up-to-date information, but be aware that a definite answer may not be possible until you’re enrolled.


As you explore your options for earning college credit during high school, keep this caveat in mind; it applies to all the types of college credit we described in the previous section. Particularly if you haven’t yet decided where you want to attend college, there’s always a possibility that some or all of your chosen schools will choose not to accept your preexisting college credits.



What to Do Next


As you can see, while not all colleges accept all transfer credits, depending on your situation, there are significant potential benefits associated with earning some college credits before you actually enroll as a college student. If you’re seriously interested in taking this path, here’s how to get started.


Consult Your High School


Your high school may have an established program in place to help current students earn college credit, or they may have access to useful resources that other students from that school have used to connect with college credit opportunities. Working with your school rather than outside of it can be especially convenient and can help ensure that your college coursework integrates smoothly into your schedule.


Be sure to check out any policies your high school already has for students taking college courses, especially if you’re participating in a dual-enrollment program. For instance, find out whether you’re allowed to leave your high school campus during the school day to take college courses in person, and whether and how college courses will be factored into your overall high school GPA.


Your academic advisor, guidance counselor, or another school official who assists with college planning and course selection may be able to provide helpful advice about which college-level courses would be a good match for you. Along with your teachers, they can also determine whether you’re ready for the challenges you’ll encounter in a college classroom.



Know Your Options


Once you’ve consulted with your school, take a moment to look over all your college credit options, both those supported by your school and those you would pursue academically. Not every program will work for everyone—your individual range of options will depend upon your geographic location and your budget, among other considerations.  


Think about which of these options would be best for you based on factors like scheduling around other courses and extracurriculars and maintaining an overall workload that’s healthy for you. Earning college credits in high school can be a great and useful experience, but you have to think about whether a given program truly meets your needs and meshes with the rest of your life.


You’ll also need to know how you get admitted to your program of choice. Some options, such as top-tier summer programs, have involved application processes that must be completed months in advance. Others, like AP courses or classes at a local college, might require that you complete certain prerequisites first. Whatever you need to do, give yourself time and space to do it well.



Consider the Future


As we’ve mentioned, it can be difficult to tell whether the college credits you earn now will be accepted by your future college. However, it’s still a good idea to do much research as you can right now.


A college you’re interested in attending might have a set policy of accepting certain kinds of transfer credits you can earn during high school. On the other hand, a college might review each transfer credit request individually, meaning that you likely can’t get an answer in advance.


You might decide to go ahead with college coursework in high school even if your intended college won’t accept the transfer credits—taking college courses has other benefits besides the practical ones. Even still, it’s always best to know what you’re getting into, and the only way to know is to ask questions and do research.  



Learn More With CollegeVine


Looking for more information about earning college credit in high school and the various options that exist? CollegeVine has you covered. Check out these posts from our blog on AP courses, summer programs, and more opportunities to help you get the most out of high school.



Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.