Getting Ahead: Earning College Credits While In High School

By Flora Richards Gustafson


Lesson Plan Guide

There are several ways to earn college credits as a high school student. Talk to your school counselor to learn about the options available at your school and determine if a credit-earning program is a good fit.

The most common ways high school students earn college credits include:

Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) Program
PSEO is a program that lets high school students take college classes on a college campus, just like a regular college student. In this type of program, you earn college credits and high school credits at the same time. As a bonus, PSEO programs are generally free, and you don’t have to pay for the college textbooks.

Hayley Mattila participated in a full-time PSEO program through her Minnesota charter school during her junior and senior years. When she graduated high school, Mattila had earned enough college credits to receive an associate’s degree.

Advanced Placement (AP) Classes
AP classes are college-level courses that you take at your high school, if it offers the program. The credits you earn can count toward high school and college graduation. While there are over 30 AP courses, your school may offer many or only a handful.

Depending on your school, you may need to meet the minimum GPA requirements to earn college credits for the AP classes you complete. Individual colleges and universities determine the credit and placement granted, based on qualifying AP test scores, so you should get your chosen institution’s policy in writing.

Unless your family meets income requirements, there may be a fee for you to take the AP exams that follow the classes.

College in the Schools (CIS) or Dual Enrollment
A CIS or Dual Enrollment program allows you to take college-level classes at your high school during your junior and senior years. The classes that you pass award high school and college credits. The cost to participate in this type of program varies by school. A participating high school, for example, may offer the courses free of charge, but might charge for the textbooks.

International Baccalaureate (IB)
An IB is a two-year international diploma program at select high schools that allows you to earn college and high school credits at the same time. In some cases, you may need to maintain a minimum GPA to earn college credits. Because IB is an international program, you may be able to use the college credits that you earn at a foreign university. The cost to participate in an IB program varies by high school.

Online Classes
Some community colleges and universities offer online classes that award college credits to high school students. If you follow this route, talk to your school counselor to see if you can earn high school credits for the classes that you complete and to learn if your school district will help pay for the cost of tuition and books.

Keep in mind that college programs in high schools may go by different names and may even have a different format. Jordan Harper, for example, participated in a “Share-Time” program at the Berrien County Math and Science Center in Michigan. He worked with his school counselor to make sure that the courses he took awarded high school and college credits, and fit into his busy schedule. By the time Harper graduated high school, it only took him one year to earn a bachelor’s degree. At age 19, Harper was enrolled in a graduate program at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

If you’re interested in taking college classes while in high school, but aren’t sure if they’re right for you, consider taking a free e-course from a college or a massive open online course (MOOC). Universities like Yale, MIT, Stanford and Harvard offer free online college courses. While most of the classes don’t award any credits, some have started to do so. Whether for credit or not, they give you a taste of the difficulty, time commitment and workload you can expect in college.

Weighing the pros and cons
Like everything else in life, deciding whether (or how much) to pursue college credit while you’re in high school is a matter of figuring out if the benefits outweigh the costs, whether in terms of time, money or other opportunities. Here are a few things to consider.

  • PROS
    Save money: College credit programs offered through high schools are usually free or significantly less expensive than college tuition. Hayley Mattila’s and Jordan Harper’s high schools covered the cost of classes and books.
  • Prepare for college: Taking college classes while in high school is a lower-risk way to see if you’re ready for the big campus. Because you’ll know what to expect, you may do better academically when you enroll as a traditional college student after graduating from high school.
  • Feel challenged: Harper felt that some of his high school classes weren’t difficult enough. He, like other high school students, found that college courses allowed him to expand his knowledge in areas of interest.
  • Fast-track your career: Whether you earn a few college credits or 65, you’ll be ready to enter the job market that much sooner.


  • Big responsibilities: You have to assume a higher level of responsibility for your education than you normally would. College professors don’t constantly remind you to do your homework or to study; it’s all up to you to get the work done.
  • Less time for your interests: If your college classes are on a college campus instead of at your high school, you may find that you can’t be with your friends as much, especially if they aren’t in the same program. It may also be harder to participate in extracurricular activities.
  • Problems transferring college credits: College credits don’t always transfer from one undergraduate school to another, whether you earn them in high school or not. If you don’t plan to continue your college career at the same school that offered the courses for your high school program, you’ll need to do some research to find which universities accept the credits.

About the Author

Flora Richards Gustafson