Earning Credits Before College

Earning Credits Before College

Earning credits before you attend college can lower the cost of your education and improve your chances of graduating on time. This option is not restricted to high-achievers; students from all backgrounds can earn college credits and work toward their degree before officially enrolling.

Higher education today is expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) the average tuition, room, and board for the 2012–13 academic year was $15,022 at public institutions, and $39,173 at private, nonprofit schools. A recent U.S. News & World Report piece reports that earning credits in high school can save as much as $2,000 for those headed to a public college, and $6,000​ for students at private universities. Additionally, many colleges and universities value independent learners; earning credits before you enter college is a great way to demonstrate your self-motivation and initiative on an application.

Before deciding how you want to earn your credits, you should think carefully about your current situation, do your research, and pick the path best for you.

Start by answering some questions:highschool_students What kind of student are you? You might be a teenager in a traditional high school, a member of the military, or a nontraditional student earning a GED online. You also need to think of your personal goals: are you shooting for a 2-year online degree, or hoping to attend a traditional 4-year university? There is no right answer, but it’s important to define your goals.

After you have a list of target schools, you need answers to the following questions: do they accept Advanced Placement (AP) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) credits? Is there a cap on the number of credits you can transfer? Are AP or IB scores included in that cap? Does your future program allow you to substitute credits for specific courses?

Keep in mind that credit transfer policies are inherently subjective, and that every college has a different set of standards. To help guide you through the credit transfer process, we’ve compiled a few tips:

  • Read your college’s credit transfer policy
  • Save all course transcripts and syllabi
  • If in doubt, speak to a registrar at the school
  • Look into hiring an education specialist who specializes in college-bound students
  • If you’re in high school, ask a guidance counselor for the contact info of school alumni who earned credit before they went to college

Earning college credit in high school is a great way to get an early start on your undergraduate degree. It will help you save money on college tuition and ensure that you get your degree faster. It also demonstrates self-initiative and independent learning to college admission officers. There are a number of ways to earn these credits, and the process is not limited to academic all-stars.

Advance Placement Testing

Advanced Placement (AP) classes, operated by the CollegeBoard, are college-level courses taught to high school students. Many colleges grant placement and course credit to students who score well on their AP exams. There are currently 37 AP courses and exams in subjects as varied as art history, French and chemistry. AP classes allow you to save time and tuition money, and can help you gain additional knowledge in an area of interest.

Remember, each college has a different AP policy. While most schools accept AP credits, there are some, like Brown University, that do not offer credit regardless of scores.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is offered at participating elementary, middle, and high schools. A school with an IB program is often called an “IB School.” The IB philosophy focuses on students taking responsibility for their learning. While AP courses drill down on particular subjects, IB courses take a holistic approach. Colleges often give credit for IB classes and—unlike AP exams—you must be enrolled in an IB program to take the tests for credit.

Students should know that IB is primarily an international program with a specific global outlook. IB costs often vary widely between schools, so you may want to do some comparison shopping when looking at IB enrollment. You can learn more at the IB website.

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment allows high school students to enroll at a college while simultaneously finishing their high school courses. Students receive credits toward both their high school diploma and college degree. Many universities will have special partnerships with local high schools. Speak to your guidance counselor to learn if your school has a dual enrollment agreement with a regional college. You should also keep in mind that dual enrollment regulations vary from state-to-state.

Prospective students are considered “nontraditional” if they took a break between graduating high school and applying to college. Working professionals, parents, and men and women serving in the military all qualify as nontraditional students.

Here’s how nontraditional students can earn credits before they go to college:

CLEP Exams

The College-Level Examination Program helps you earn credit for knowledge you’ve already obtained. It offers 33 exams in five subject areas, granting three or more college credits per exam. Test are open to anyone who feels that they have sufficient knowledge to pass the exam, including high school students. To get an idea of the material on a test, the CLEP website offers free sample questions for each subject on their homepage. You should try these questions out to gauge whether a test is right for you. Each exam costs $80.

DSST Exams

Originally intended solely for military servicemembers, the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) Program was extended to all interested learners in 2006. Similar to the CLEP exams, these tests are to designed to grant college credits for learning done outside the classroom. The program offers over 30 exams in a variety of subjects, including applied technology and business. Over 1,900 colleges and universities recognize the DSST program. Exams are free to military personnel and their families. The general public can take an exam for $80. If you think you may be qualified for a specific subject area, try a free practice exam here.

UExcel Exams from Excelsior College

Targeted towards non-traditional students, Excelsior College offers a wide range of accredited online courses, degrees, and exams for credit. Anyone can earn college level credit by passing proficiency exams from the UExcel Excelsior College Examination Program. These computer-based tests are offered at thousands of test centers globally. Fees range from $95 to $445.

Academic Portfolios

Designed for adult students with a strong work history, academic portfolios demonstrate academic proficiency to colleges through life experiences. Combining your work history, volunteering, studying abroad, or self-directed learning, you may have done the equivalent of college level work, and could qualify for credit. Academic portfolios are much more difficult than simply submitting a resume. You must provide an in-depth analysis of how your experience has developed your learning, along with tangible proof of learning outcomes. For this reason, there are several organizations dedicated to helping adults put together portfolios. Learning Counts and CAEL are two popular organizations that can help you assemble a successful portfolio.

Military Students

If you served in the military, you may be able to get college credit for your experience. Members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard can receive Joint Service Transcripts (JST) while they are active or inactive members of the armed forces. These computerized transcripts, developed by the American Council on Education, give recommendations for college credits based on job descriptions and military education. You should request that your JST be sent from your service branch to your intended college. Note that the Air Force does not use a JST, but rather the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) Transcript.

Online Courses

online_student_creditOnline courses are often ideal for busy nontraditional students, including stay-at-home parents, military personnel, or working professionals. Credits earned through online courses are treated identically to classes taken on campus. The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) evaluates and recommends college credit at hundreds of online education schools. You can learn more about online courses from CREDIT’s website.

In addition to tuition-based online courses, you can also take MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). These free courses allow thousands of students to study simultaneously. While it is still relatively uncommon for colleges to grant credits for MOOCs, Arizona State University is one of a growing handful of schools that now accepts them.

Future Online Students

Students who plan to attend an online university instead of a traditional one should know that the credit transfer process is quite similar to the one found at brick and mortar colleges. The University Of Phoenix—one of the largest online universities in the U.S.—grants credit for Advanced Placement Exams (AP), College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Excelsior, and DANTES, among others.

Commonly asked questions about earning credits before you go to college:

What if I’m a homeschooled student?
You can earn college credit while still in high school with Dual Enrollment, AP classes, CLEP tests, and online education courses.

What if I’m an international student?
To find out if your credits qualify for an American university, you have to send them to a credit evaluator, such as World Education Services.

Do my company’s training courses count toward college credit?
It depends. CREDIT evaluates work training for credit, and you can contact CREDIT for more information about whether your particular training.

Can I take the International Baccalaureate (IB) program online?
Yes. IB online courses are offered by Pamoja Education and developed under the IB’s quality assurance standards. Learn more here.

I’m a retired senior citizen. What path is open to me?
Seniors fall under the category of nontraditional students and can earn college credits by taking CLEP exams, DSST exams, or by assembling an academic portfolio.

Can National Guard service members earn college credits just like active-duty military? Yes, National Guard service members can take CLEP and DSST exams. Learn more.

I’m a veteran who served in the military years ago. Can I still have a Joint Services Transcript (JST) sent to a college for credit evaluation?
Yes. JST is available for both current military personnel and prior service members. Please note: the Air Force uses the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) Transcript.

How many colleges accept AP grades?
The overwhelming majority of U.S. colleges and universities (plus colleges in 40+ countries) grant incoming students credit, placement, or both for qualifying AP scores.

How do I send an AP Grade Report to a college or university?
You can call AP Services at (609) 771-7300 or (888) 225-5427.

Can I earn college credit for overseas missionary work or volunteering abroad?
The simple answer is yes, although it will ultimately depend on the college you’re applying to and your prospective major. It is a good idea to choose volunteer work that is closely related to the subject you wish to study in college.