Dual Enrollment: How To Earn Community College Credits In High School

Dual Enrollment: How To Earn Community College Credits In High School

By the time Alfred R. Ripoll IV graduated from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, he already had 21 college credits under his belt thanks to nearby Delgado Community College. As St. Augustine’s 2021 valedictorian prepared to embark on a college education at Princeton University, he had already knocked out more than a semester of classes. Ripoll began his participation in a dual enrollment program as a freshman, balancing the usual high school workload with a selection of introductory college courses. By the time he walked for graduation, Ripoll had whittled away most of his first-year commitments. In addition to saving a genuine fortune on tuition, Ripoll would now enter the Ivy Leagues as a seasoned veteran of college-level study.

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Ripoll’s story highlights the tremendous opportunity represented by dual enrollment. We tend to think of community college as a great starting point for those who will ultimately complete their studies in a 4-year program. And it’s true that for the incoming first-year college student, community college can be a great way to save money and dip a toe in the waters of higher education. But you may not have to wait for graduation to get your feet wet. With dual enrollment, you can begin earning credits toward a college degree long before you don the cap and gown.

We can’t promise that your dual enrollment credits will lead into an Ivy League education like Ripoll’s did, but if you do it right, you could get a real jump start on college.

So what, exactly, is dual enrollment? Why should you pursue this opportunity at your local community college? Is dual enrollment right for you? And if so, how can you get involved in this kind of program? What should you expect from the dual enrollment experience?

If you’d like to begin by checking out the top community colleges in the U.S., take a look at our rankings. Otherwise, read on for answers to the questions above and more...

Why pursue dual enrollment at a community college?

There are at least three extremely compelling reasons to pursue dual enrollment while in high school: time, money, and experience:

Save Time

Based on the numbers, the phrase “4-year college” is something of a misnomer. According to EducationData.org, just 41% of students seeking their bachelor’s degree will graduate in four years. This means less than half of all incoming college freshmen will earn a true “four-year degree.”

And in fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “The overall 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at 4-year degree-granting institutions in fall 2012 was 62 percent.”

So not only are most students more likely to finish in six years than in four, but it may take even longer for a statistically significant number of students. With dual enrollment, you’ll have an opportunity to complete a number of introductory level courses, the kind that most students must take during their first year of college.

With dual enrollment, you'll have an opportunity to complete a number of introductory level courses, the kind that most students must take during their first year of college.”

With dual enrollment, you’ll get a jump on meeting your prerequisites, which can put you in the advantageous position of declaring your major earlier, accumulating the required number of credits to graduate sooner, and ultimately reducing your likelihood of becoming a super-senior (as students are affectionately known in their fifth year and beyond). If super-senior status is inevitable based on your schedule or the demands of your discipline, dual enrollment can at least preemptively cut into the amount of time you’ll tack on at the end college.

Save Money

If, like the majority of college students, you need an extra semester or two to earn your degree, you have nothing to feel bad about. You do, however, have to pay for it. Every extra credit, course, and calendar year you spend in college goes on your tab.

Perhaps the most compelling fact about dual enrollment is that such programs are typically free. Every state has its own parameters for administering its dual enrollment program. But in most cases, you, as the student, will be the beneficiary of a state-funded program. This is a rare opportunity to get a college-level education at no cost.

Perhaps the most compelling fact about dual enrollment is that such programs are typically free.”

Contrast that to what you will likely experience once you do make the leap to college. According to the NCES, the price for a year of tuition, housing and fees at a 4-year institution was $28,123 for the 2018-19 school year.

In other words, for every extra year that you spend earning your 4-year degree, you’ll likely spend something close to $30,000. Of course, for many vaunted private colleges, that number can easily exceed $50,000 per year. With dual enrollment, every free credit that you earn in advance of college could translate into tremendous savings.

Let’s consider Ripoll’s strategy for just a moment. During the 2019-2020 school year, the average cost per-credit at Princeton University was just over $1600. This means that Ripoll’s dual enrollment strategy saved him more than $33,000 on college tuition! That amount is relatively close to the average student loan debt burden held by graduating students, which came in at just over $37,000 in 2020.

Gain Experience

Perhaps you’re in no rush to finish college. And maybe money is no object for you. But one thing that all first-year college students have in common is that they are first-year college students. College is an adjustment for everybody. Whether you’re getting to know your way around campus or you’re just figuring out how to stay focused in your online classes, it can take time to acclimate to your new environment.

You’ll have newfound educational independence, as well as heightened academic demands and expectations. You’ll be expected to read more, write more, and comprehend more on your own time.

Dual enrollment offers you the chance to experience these aspects of college before you make the full leap into the college lifestyle. Moreover, as a high school student, you’ll have the unique opportunity to experience this in a more supportive and structured environment. This offers you the distinct advantage of adjusting to the academic dimensions of college ahead of schedule. By the time you’re moving stuff into your dorm, you’ll have some real college mileage on your wheels.

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Is dual enrollment right for you?

So dual enrollment is worthwhile. But does it make sense for your personal situation?

Before you can answer that question, you should know that dual enrollment is just one of several ways you can earn college credits while still in high school. It may also be possible, for instance, to earn a select number of college credits through Advanced Placement (AP) courses. It’s worth comparing these options to determine which is best for you. So what’s the difference between dual enrollment and AP courses?

Credit Transfer

One major difference is that AP credits are more likely to be recognized by a wider range of colleges. Most public universities will accept credits earned through dual enrollment. However, this is not necessarily true of every private college or university. AP credits are recognized by most colleges, public or private, including most elite colleges and universities.

For an interesting look at the world of elite private colleges, check out our article Should I go to an elite college?

Most public universities will accept credits earned through dual enrollment.”

If you plan to attend a private college or university, this is something you must consider. On the other hand, if you plan to attend a public university, especially in-state, dual enrollment could be a perfect fit. In many cases, curriculum and course structure are aligned between community colleges and public four-year schools as a way of easing and encouraging transfer. Dual enrollment could put you in an ideal position to take advantage of this alignment.

Location

Another factor to consider is location. AP courses will almost always be offered on location at your high school. This is true of some dual enrollment programs. But many dual enrollment programs require you to either complete courses online or on-campus. This means you may be required to attend classes during after-hours or on the weekends at your nearest community college.

The experience you choose is likely a matter of personal preference. If you prefer the convenience of a program which is built directly into your high school curriculum, AP courses might be a good fit. But for some students, part of the appeal of dual enrollment is that you do actually get to attend classes on a college campus. If you’re in it for the sneak peak as much as the credits and education, dual enrollment may be right for you.

Academic Experience

You should also consider the academic experience. AP courses tend to be extremely rigorous. For this reason, many high school AP programs are fairly selective, limiting available seats and requiring one to meet certain performance thresholds. AP courses are also generally limited to a very specific set of classes, which limits how many credits you can earn this way.

By contrast, dual enrollment offers access to actual college classes. You'll get a feel for the pacing and approach of a degree-level course, not to mention a firsthand look at a college professor in action.”

By contrast, dual enrollment offers access to actual college classes. You’ll get a feel for the pacing and approach of a degree-level course, not to mention a firsthand look at a college professor in action. And as with college, you’ll have a wide array of options to choose from, as well as a higher ceiling for the number of available credits. In fact, depending on your state, you may be able to start as early as freshman year and earn as many as 10 courses (or 30 credits) while still in high school.

Once again, your desired academic experience is likely to be a matter of your personal preference. But for those seeking an advanced screening before showtime, dual enrollment is the way to go.

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How can you get involved in a dual enrollment program?

There are two basic steps to getting involved in a dual enrollment program.

Consult Your High School

The first step is to find out if your high school participates in a dual enrollment program. Most high schools share a direct relationship with a nearby community college. Every dual enrollment program is different. Consult an academic advisor or guidance counselor at your high school to find out how dual enrollment is structured at your school. You’ll find out:

  • How to enroll;
  • Where you’ll be completing your courses;
  • Which courses are available; and
  • How many total credits you can earn.

In some states, you can begin as early as your first year of high school. In other states, this program may only be open to you as a high school junior or senior.

Find Out Which Colleges Accept Dual Enrollment Credits

Once you’ve determined that your high school offers dual enrollment, the next step is to ensure that these credits will be recognized by the colleges on your list. The vast majority of public colleges, especially in your state, will recognize dual enrollment and community college credits. But there may be limits on if, and how many, credits can be transferred to certain private colleges and universities.

Every college has its own set of rules and administrative hurdles when it comes to transferring credits. Visit the website for any college on your list and find out exactly what their transfer policy is before you pursue dual enrollment. If you truly have your heart set on attending a certain college (or type of college), you should know ahead of time whether these credits will be worth your while.

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What should you expect from the dual enrollment experience?

There is one final consideration, which is not to be taken lightly. Are you up for the challenge? Dual enrollment means you’ll be taking on a heavier workload than many of your high school peers. Be sure that you’re prepared.

As Ripoll describes it, “I enrolled in seven courses at Delgado. They included statistics, computer science, and art history. Taking college courses along with high school courses was an adjustment. But once I got the hang of it, it was pretty easy.”

We can’t promise that your experience will be a breeze, but if you feel you can make this adjustment, you’ll arrive on campus well ahead of the curve.

For help making the adjustment to a dual enrollment program, check out our Guide to College Study Skills.

And if your dual enrollment program includes online courses, check out our 10 Tips for Adjusting to School Online.

For even more information for high school students who are embarking on their journey towards college, check out the Best Websites for High School Students.

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