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How Many Ways to Earn College Credit in High School?

How many different ways can your teen earn college credit? More than you think! But the goal isn’t just to “earn credit” because the credit only saves you time and money if it can eventually be used toward a degree. This understanding is MORE IMPORTANT for high school students than adults because of the variables at hand.

When a parents starts to think about college credit options, there are so many choices and options that it is very overwhelming!! At any given time, there are about 1,200 community colleges and 3,000 4-year colleges plus another 1,000 non-college providers. In a maze of 5,000 providers, how can someone know what is best?

Here’s what you may NOT yet know: there are just a few categories that ALL college credit can neatly fall into. Once you understand these categories, you can evaluate college credit’s likelihood of transferability to a high degree of accuracy. While it’s true that you won’t have a 100% yes/no answer until your teen sends their credit to their target school, if you wait for that (like 99% of students will do) you’re going to miss out on the opportunity to accumulate large amounts of low cost and very likely to transfer college credit in high school.

Type 1: Credit by Exam

All college credit will first fall into one of 2 categories: it will either result from completing a “course” or by passing an “exam.” Credit by exam allows the student to do 100% of the learning independently and then take 1 standardized exam. Passing the exam results in college credit at a college that allows you to earn credit that way. Most, but not all, colleges allow credit by exam in some amount.

Exams with Good Transferability

There are 3 very well-established credit by exam brands. Advanced Placement and CLEP (both products authored by The College Board) and DSST. These exams are “popular” enough that you can generally go onto a college website, type the name in their search box, and find out quickly if those exams are accepted, the score you need, and the credit they’ll honor. It’s tempting to use the AP, CLEP, or DSST websites to search for colleges that accept their exams, but this is not a good practice. Colleges make their own determination about which exams are accepted, so never use a credit by exam website or listing if you’re trying to make sure- you have to contact the college. In terms of number of colleges that participate in these programs, AP is by far the most widely accepted, but more than half of colleges award credit for CLEP and about half for DSST. Those are very good numbers!

Advanced Placement Exam (AP)

College Level Exam Program (CLEP)


Type 2: Credit by Course

All college credit will first fall into one of 2 categories: it will either result from completing a “course” or by passing an “exam.” Credit by course is exactly what you imagine. A student reads a book, does homework, has a teacher, etc. and then at the completion of the course, they’ll receive a grade and college credit. This is how most high school students take their courses, and it’s usually through some form of “dual enrollment” in which the college awards college credit and the parent awards high school credit. Most, but not all, colleges allow students to take courses from other similarly accredited colleges and “transfer” it into their school.

Classes with Excellent Transferability

In order to know how likely your teen’s dual enrollment course is to transfer, you should follow 3 best practices for assuring smooth transfer:

  1. The college offering the course is REGIONALLY ACCREDITED. This is the single most important factor. Don’t take anyone’s word for it, check for yourself here.
  2. The class is worth college credit. (as opposed to CEU credit) This you can ask the college directly.
  3. The class is a general education course. There are other names a college may use instead of “general education” but subjects in this category include courses like English, math, history, science, foreign language, etc. and are usually considered as requirements for most or all students. These are the safest bet. Courses that are not general education would include career-type courses or business.

Dual enrollment can save time and money

What About Classes Offered by Others?

Classes offered by organizations or business are absolutely 100% not in the same category as classes offered by a college. It’s really important for parents who use these products for their homeschool understand the limitations in addition to the advantages of these products. (We sometimes call these courses “ACE Courses” because they have been evaluated by the American Council on Education. It’s not the same as accreditation, but it’s better than nothing, so products that have obtained ACE evaluation are in their own category from those that have not.)

Organizations and businesses that are not colleges have to go the extra mile to “find” colleges that will accept their courses. They are highly motivated to do this because if no college accepts their courses, then they don’t have customers. These relationships are often called “Partnerships” or “Partner Colleges” on their websites. A written partnership helps the user “trust” that the course will transfer into a specific college.

Occasionally (often) a website will advertise “our courses have been accepted at A,B,C, colleges” but understand this is NOT a partnership and NOT something you can count on.

Classes offered this way can be very affordable (as low as $30 per credit) and when used at a partner college, assure excellent transferability. What you have to understand is that when your target college is NOT a partner college, the likelihood of transfer is almost zero.

30 Ways to Earn College Credit in High School

Each year I review hundreds of college credit options.  This list ranks those options by how likely they are to transfer when your teen goes to college. Click on each option for more information and insight.

Excellent Transferability

College-Based Dual Enrollment

Arizona State University Earned Admission

Summer School

Winter Break, Minimesters, Accelerated Terms

Outlier (legitimate credit laundering)

Good Transferability

College Level Exam Program (CLEP)

Advanced Placement Exam (AP)


Limited Transferability: ACE CREDIT  

ALEKS Corporation—McGraw Hill (ACE)

Saylor Academy (ACE & NCCRS)

Sophia (ACE)

Straighterline (ACE) (ACE)

Workplace Training (ACE)

GED Exam (ACE)

The Institutes for Statistics Education (ACE)

Limited to Improbable Transferability: NCCRS Credit

Coopersmith Career Consulting (NCCRS)

Davar Academy (NCCRS) (NCCRS)  **ages 18 and older AND high school diploma or GED**

Transferability Varies / Special Transfer

Foreign Language Exams – Advanced Placement, CLEP, ACTFL, NYU-FLP

Prior Learning Assessments (PLA)

edX & Coursera MOOC

Christian MOOC—Hillsdale College

UExcel Exams—Excelsior College Exams

TECEP Exams – Thomas Edison Credit by Exam Program

CSM Learn – Quantitative Literacy Math Course


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