The skyrocketing price of a college education is a formidable obstacle to obtaining a college degree. Many graduating high school seniors are typically faced with two equally unattractive options. They can take on what often amounts to a mountain of debt, or they can choose to work for a few years and try to save up enough money to enter college without loans. These options both have big downsides–loans need to be repaid, and most students who don’t enter college right away run the very real risk of never obtaining a college degree.
Fortunately, there exists a variety of options that can help lessen the financial burden of a college degree. Through programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) course work, College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and early college, high school students can begin to accumulate college credit while still in high school. Students who elect to participate in such programs spend less time taking basic courses in college and consequently, are able to graduate quicker and at a lower cost.
While the basic programs for early college credit already exist, they are currently underutilized for a variety of reasons. First, not all high schools have the resources to offer advanced placement courses or provide partnerships with local colleges or universities. Even when they do have sufficient resources, it may not be cost effective when few students participate. Second, insufficient information and timing reduces the appeal of the programs. Students and parents may only see the short term costs of taking advantage of such options, while the ultimate benefits of doing so are uncertain and likely a few years away. Lastly, colleges themselves are sometimes reluctant to accept credit obtained in high school, and require students to take redundant courses instead.
Cost Savings from Reducing College Course Load The savings of accumulating college credit in high school have the potential to be immense both for the student and the public. Currently, the average student pays about $1,063 per course or $4,253 per semester. Additionally, public universities subsidize students at a rate of about $881 per course or $3,522 per semester. The total cost of a college education could potentially be reduced by up to 12.5%, which would lessen the financial burden on students and taxpayers. In fact, for every 1 million students entering college with a semester’s worth of early credits, the cost of college could be reduced by over $9.5 billion dollars.
Earning College Credit
Early Below are a few of the most popular ways that high school students can obtain college credit.
The Advanced Placement Program
An Advanced Placement, or AP course, is a college level class taught in high school. The rigor and challenge of an AP course is intended to be commensurate with that of an introductory level college course. When the class is finished, students have the opportunity to take an AP exam to demonstrate that they have mastered the material. Students who demonstrate sufficient mastery of the material may then be granted credit by the college to which they are admitted.
However, there are several reasons that many students do not take advantage of AP classes. First, the AP program is not free. There are costs for both the student and the high school offering the course. In order to have the chance of obtaining credit, a student must take the AP exam and pay the $86 exam fee. This fee can quickly add up for a student taking multiple AP classes. High schools also bear a significant cost for offering AP courses, as they must offer additional sections of a class and often must invest in additional textbooks and teacher resources.
Another reason AP programs are underutilized is because students are unsure whether or not the college they ultimately attend will accept their AP credits. Some schools such as Brandeis, Dartmouth, Tufts, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania have no limit on the credit they will award for high AP exam scores, though Tufts is in the process of imposing restrictions. Other schools such as Boston College and Williams College will not award AP credit under any circumstances. Since some colleges do not give credit for AP courses, and high school students do not know what college they will ultimately enroll in, there is considerable uncertainty about the benefit of taking AP classes. The short-term costs paired with uncertain long-term benefits combine to deter many students from AP programs.
College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is an early college credit program administered by the College Board. Thirty-four different CLEP exams are currently offered and satisfactory scores at participating schools can earn students between 3 and 12 credits per exam. Needless to say, the $72 cost per exam is substantially cheaper than paying tuition at the vast majority of colleges. Over 2,900 colleges and universities award credit for at least one of the 34 CLEP exams.
Increasing numbers of students also have the option of using online education to help earn college credits while still in high school. One of the main benefits of using online courses is learning the ability to manage one’s time without faculty oversight, a crucial skill for students leaving high school and entering higher education. Online courses also allow for a more flexible schedule. On top of this flexibility is the option to take advanced and specialized classes that are often unavailable at many high schools. Lastly, online courses may enable students to discover subjects of interest (or disinterest) prior to arriving on campus, helping them avoid the delays that often accompany changing majors.
Dual Enrollment Programs
Dual Enrollment Programs offer current high school students the opportunity to simultaneously earn college credit. With availability generally determined on a state-by-state basis, these programs come under a host of different titles, such as Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). For the most part, these programs are fairly comparable. The primary differences among states offering these programs include eligibility requirements, funding sources, admission requirements, and target student populations. Many states require participating students to individually cover the cost of dual enrollment, while other states cover the costs themselves or require the participating high schools to do so. Additionally, many states, such as Virginia and Indiana, only allow academically eligible juniors and seniors to participate in dual enrollment programs. Numerous research organizations, including the Pew Charitable Foundation, have conducted national studies on dual enrollment programs helping to illustrate their ability to save on future higher education costs as well as improve learning efficiency.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program offers a curriculum that provides students with more challenging courses than regular high school courses. Successful students earn an IB diploma. Modeled on a classical education in European schools, the coursework entails a package of six courses that include literature, a foreign language, social science, experimental science, math, and arts. Although only 500 schools in the United States offer the program, many colleges award credit and preferential admission status to IB students. With tuition costs covered almost entirely by the school or the state, IB provides a strong advantage to students who are able to take advantage of this program.
As the costs of college have continued to rise throughout the country, new and innovative ways to award college credits have gained in appeal. Alternate programs to educate high school students at the college level will be beneficial to the individual student as well as the university at which they choose to enroll, since students with prior exposure to college level courses are less likely to be overwhelmed and drop out. Programs such as AP and IB allow students to enhance their curriculum while still in high school, giving them a jump start on their higher education for minimal costs. Duel-enrollment programs provide a formalized path to early degree completion, while filling gaps in some high school curricula. The CLEP test, by certifying the mastery of subject material, is another option for students capable of college level work. Lastly, online courses provide a flexible setting for students to manage their time and their learning goals. Each of these options allows students to take control of their education and holds the potential to significantly reduce the cost of college.