By Bev Bachel
If you’re like most of my friends and colleagues, you’d like to help your children and/or grandchildren pay for college. Many do this by opening a 529 College Savings Plan account and naming a child or grandchild as beneficiary. But did you know there’s another way to reduce the cost of college?
“School districts and state legislators throughout the country have given high school students in every state the ability to earn free college credit,” says Joe Nathan, director, Center for School Change. “This can help families save thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition, books and fees.”
These programs are available for both academic and career/technical college courses.
Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 34% of high school students take advantage of these programs, despite the fact that 88% of high schools offer them.
Free college credit
Students earn free college credit in two basic ways:
- By taking courses online, in their high school or on a college or university campus
- By passing an exam
But students—with parental and grandparent guidance—need to act fast as many high school students will register this month or next for 2023-24 courses.
Five options from which to choose
- College in the Schools, Concurrent Enrollment. Federal statistics show that 82% of all U.S. public schools offer this option. Colleges train high school faculty to teach these courses. Free college credit depends on how well the student performs over the entire semester or class year, not just how well the student does on the final exam, which is typical for Advanced Placement (AB) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
- Advanced Placement. More than 1.1 million high school students took AP exams in 2021, according to the College Board, which runs this program. The courses are free, but to receive free college credit, students must score well on a final exam
- International Baccalaureate. These free courses are offered in about 950 U.S. high schools. As with AP, free college credit is awarded to students who do well on a final exam. Financial arrangements for this exam are the same as those for AP. Students also can earn an IB Diploma.
- Project Lead the Way. Some high schools offer free college-level courses focused on engineering, computer science and biomedical science.
- Other options. Free courses on college/university campuses or online are available through programs such as Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) (in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Dual Enrollment in Florida, Running Start (in Washington) and in other states. Many of these programs include both academic and technical/vocational courses.
No high school offers all these options, so check with counselors and with high school and state Department of Education websites.
How one student saved roughly $26,000
Jonah participated full-time in PSEO his junior and senior years of high school at the University of Minnesota. He earned 61 college credits, saving roughly $26,000 in college costs. With these savings, Jonah continued at the University of Minnesota, pursuing degrees in Economics and Finance, planning to graduate in Spring 2023.
PSEO significantly reduced financial stress on Jonah and his family. After working in consulting and the nonprofit space, Jonah will pursue a law degree and work in public service. Taking full-time courses on campus exposed him to perspectives and experiences not available in high school. By the time he enrolled as a full-time student, Jonah had a strong support network that helped throughout his remaining university experience.
College credit can also be obtained via the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) which gives 90- to 120-minute exams that can lead to free college credit. CLEP payment arrangements vary by district.
“Dual-credit enrollment is a winning strategy with huge, multiple benefits for students and their families,” says Nathan. “Not only does such enrollment help students better prepare for full-time college studies, it can also dramatically lower costs and reduce debt.”
Nathan believes the best single source of information, state by state, has been published by the non-partisan Education Commission of the States. It’s a good place to start researching what’s available in your state. More free information is available in Minnesota from People for PSEO, or nationally, by contacting Nathan at [email protected].
Bev Bachel is a Twin Cities freelance writer who was able to afford college thanks in large part to the financial aid she received. She is also the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go and For It! A Guide for Teens.
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