4 ways to earn college credits before hitting campus

three students in library

It pays to do some serious homework before heading to college. Students who start their college tenure with a few courses already under their belts can often shave a significant amount of time — and tuition — off of their higher education bills. Check out these ways to earn college credit before starting your freshman year.

Test out

A single three-credit college course costs nearly $900 at an in-state public college and more than $3,300 at the average private school, according to data published by the College Board, but students can frequently nab some credits for pennies on the dollar by testing out. College admissions teams love seeing good grades in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, and many institutions offer credit for impressive AP and IB scores. Just do some research before paying for those exams, says Elizabeth Stone, Ph.D., executive director of Campanile College Counseling, Inc., an independent education consulting firm in San Francisco.

"The ability to get college credit for AP classes and IB classes is so incredibly varied from school to school and not just from college to college, but from department to department," she says. "If you just take a bunch of AP tests and hope that you'll get something from it, you might end up with absolutely nothing."

Even among schools that do give credit for AP and IB courses, Stone adds, some only offer generic elective credits for high test scores. Others award credit in a specific subject that students can use to skip ahead in their general education or major curriculum.

Some institutions also award credit for SAT II subject test or College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exam scores. Schools may also offer free internal placement exams that allow admitted students to test out of certain courses Stone says.

Go early

There are two types of early college programs: summer residential programs available at four-year campuses nationwide, and dual enrollment initiatives available during the regular school year that allow high school students to earn both high school and community college credits simultaneously. Summer residential programs can be expensive — many cost several thousand dollars — but dual enrollment programs offer a chance for students to earn transferable credits at a lower cost than four-year school tuition prices.

The Early College High School Initiative, a program designed to help underserved students achieve collegiate success, has started or redesigned early college programs in 30 states. In Georgia's program, for instance, students can earn up to 60 credits while getting heavy academic and social support in the process, says Dawn Cooper, director of college readiness for the University System of Georgia, the organization that operates the state's Early College High School Initiative program.

"[The 10 member colleges participating in the program] bring the students on campus well before they start to take college classes," Cooper explains. "… Sometimes they do sort of boot camps to introduce them to what college professors are like, what type of writing styles are expected from you while you are in college, what type of demands are going to be on you as a college student. "...They really strive to remove those academic, financial and social barriers that prevent so many students from entering and succeeding in college."

In addition to the savings, Early College High School Initiative programs also introduce populations that are historically underrepresented in higher education, such as low-income and first-generation college students, to collegiate life and culture early, making them more likely to complete a degree, Cooper says.

A list of Early College High School Initiative programs is available on the organization's website. Students can also research other dual enrollment options through their high school's academic advising office.

Get community credit

You don't need to be a high school student or enroll in dual enrollment to earn community college credit. Because many community colleges have open enrollment policies, students can nab a few frugally priced credits prior to enrolling in a four-year school. Before doing so, Elizabeth Stone recommends making double sure that the courses you're taking will transfer and remember that community college courses will go on your official transcript when you do apply to a four-year school.

"Unless you're pretty confident that you're going to do well, you don't want to go take a physics class at a community college and get a C," Stone says. "... That's not going to help you."

Cash in on life experience

Some colleges also grant credit for work experience, job training and independent projects, but you'll have to prove what you've learned, says Beth Kneller, deputy director of CUNY Baccalaureate, a school in the City University of New York college system that allows students to create their own degree plans. To get credit for life experience at CUNY Baccalaureate, students must attend a seminar to learn what types of experience count, then must submit an introductory letter outlining what they've done and what type of credit they're seeking as well as a portfolio of work.

"[For example] if a student was a singer or an actor, an artist … those kinds students usually have reviews and playbills and they've gone to workshops," Kneller says. "... Other students have gotten credits for things like working in a retail store, so they might be familiar with sales, customer relations, maybe some marketing, maybe training other employees. … I've seen other students who volunteered on political campaigns and have learned about political organizing and outreach. There's a lot of room for possibility."

Colleges that cater to older students and working adults are the most likely to offer credit for life experience, Kneller adds, but sometimes these programs aren't easy to find.

"Some schools do it but don't advertise it," she says.


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About Us, CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies,

Dawn Cooper, Director of College Readiness, University System of Georgia, Interviewed by the author, April 22, 2014

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Beth Kneller, Deputy Director, CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, Interviewed by the author, April 25, 2014

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Elizabeth Stone, Executive Director, Campanile Counseling College, Inc., Interviewed by the author, April 24, 2014