Posted in HS4CC

Graduation Dates Matter: Diplomas & Degrees

You see students who earn associate or bachelor’s degrees in high school yet your college tells you your teen can’t do this until they graduate high school. Who’s right?

After 30 Credits

Most teens in the HS4CC community graduate high school with about 30 college credits. They enter college as a freshman and pursue their degree like any typical student. But what about students with more credit than that? 60 credits can complete an associate degree, and 120 can complete a bachelor’s, so what about finishing a full degree in high school? Yep! We see that too. The frustration for many parents comes when they get beyond 30 credits and start thinking about a degree for their teen. Often the advice they receive is conflicting or restrictive or that they just shouldn’t do it.

Dates Matter

When students have completed college courses while in high school, they considered first-time students. This is based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) definition that states “students who enter the institution with advanced standing (college credits earned before graduation from high school) are considered First-time Students.” If you want your student to apply to college after high school as a freshman (yes, even with a degree) they must stop earning college credit when they graduate high school. If you graduate your teen from high school on June 10th, then they should not take college classes that start after June 10th. It’s ok if they finish classes that started during high school, but they shouldn’t start AFTER high school.

Degree Before HS Graduation

To stay inside the IPEDS definition of a first time freshman, your student should finish their degree in high school. As an example, the student’s college degree may be awarded on June 9th and then the parent would award the high school diploma on June 10th. Since you probably can’t alter your teen’s graduation date if you’ve already submitted it to a college, you’ll have to either leave their graduation date as “anticipated” on their high school transcript, or avoid giving them the date until you have confirmed that all the dates are going to line up the way you need them to. Unless your state says otherwise, parents are usually the authority who determines that high school graduation requirements have been met and the date that this happens.

Where Do Degrees Come From and How to Get One

This is not a prank question- you really have to understand how this works before you can even think about your teen getting a degree. The #1 biggest mistake parents make is trying to enroll their teen in a college program as a regular college degree-seeking student before they’ve graduated high school. The college will then send them a rejection with a letter stating something to the effect of “you have to graduate your student first, and then you can apply.” This is confusing since parents are observing people in our community getting degrees all day long! What gives?

We aren’t going to get into the accreditation aspect, I want to make this as clear and simple as I can: ALL COLLEGES require students to be high school graduates (or equivalent) before they can be degree seeking. All colleges, all students. Every time.

Now, if someone isn’t, some colleges (community colleges) have GED programs, etc. but you have to cross that goal post prior to degree seeking eligibility. Unless…

Dual enrollment is an exception. When a college allows dual enrollment, the college has received permission to allow students to enroll without having a high school diploma. This is a special case, and is why dual enrollment is unique. (Dual enrollments’ uniqueness is why parents sometimes get incorrect information from a college’s admissions department- they are answering as if your student were actually a college student, not a dual enrollment student).

In order for you teen to earn a DEGREE before high school graduation, you have to find a college that (a) offers dual enrollment (b) allows your student to enroll (c) offers degrees to dual enrolled students. Not all colleges do. One more small consideration, even in states where the awarding of degrees to high school students is not prohibited by the state’s Department of Education, colleges still may opt to deny this opportunity to teens. In my city, we have 2 community colleges a few miles apart, both are state-funded free dual enrollment programs, but one college allows awarding a degree in high school and the other doesn’t.

Not Everyone Will Qualify

If your state has a dual enrollment program, that’s where you should start. If the program awards associate degrees to regular students, then you can inquire whether or not they can award them to high school students. If they say “yes” then great, proceed with enthusiasm. If they say “no” you’ll want to trust but verify. No is easy to say when someone doesn’t know, so go ahead and check your state’s Department of Education for policies surrounding the state’s dual enrollment program. If the program isn’t state-funded, it may be harder to find, but if the verbage doesn’t forbid it, it’s worth trying and asking them for consideration.

What About the Big 3?

Many of our HS4CC “success stories” celebrate students who earn bachelor’s degrees from one of a small handful of colleges (Big 3= Excelsior University, Thomas Edison State University, or Charter Oak State College). None of these colleges offer dual enrollment, so what these families are doing is outsourcing 100% of their teen’s credits using alternative credits like Sophia, Studycom, CLEP, etc. and then leaving the minimum requirements (about 2 classes) for last. The family then graduates their teen from high school, applies for college, finishes the last 2 classes, and then graduates college. These last 3 items are executed over the course of a few months or 1 semester. This can only be done if you’re really really resourceful and very very careful- this is not something the college will help you with. (Why? Because they want you to enroll with them and take their cla$$es after high school.)

What About Liberty, Franklin, SNHU, and Others?

There are a few other colleges we sometimes call the “Next 9” because they follow the Big 3 in several ways and as a set make up a dozen colleges that are super-transfer friendly. The two notable points here are that they (a) allow a family to outsource nearly as many credits (all but 30) and (b) these colleges offer dual enrollment!*

Pop quiz: Why does offering dual enrollment matter? Because dual enrollment is the special exception when a teen can enroll and pursue a degree while in high school. It’s a back door.

Recommendation for those who don’t want to finish a degree in high school.

  1. Earn college credit.
  2. Graduate from high school.
  3. Apply to college as a freshman/ send your transcripts.
  4. Complete your degree.

Recommendation for those who DO want to finish a degree in high school.

  1. Discuss with your teen the considerable work required to finish a 2 or 4 year college degree in high school. (you need a very motivated teen)
  2. Discuss which local colleges offer enrollment to high school students if your student will attend on campus, or which offer online options if they will attend remotely.
  3. Though cheaper, you will have to cash-flow 100% of any and all costs because financial aid is not available to high school students.
  4. Consider local free dual enrollment programs that lead to a degree and also guarantee transfer to a 4-year university. (these will often NOT allow a lot of alternative credit like Sophia or Studycom)
  5. Alternative-credit-centric plans will get the best utility at a school on the Big 3 or Next 9 list. (the better plan is for a bachelor’s degree, not an associate degree. Associate degrees from 4-year schools do not transfer well and are almost as expensive as bachelor’s degrees.)

*Big 3 & Next 9: Around 2020, I stopped using the phrase “Next 9” and the specific list of colleges because there were so many changes. You may find old blog posts of mine that mention these 9 schools, but there have been so many changes to each individual college that it’s inaccurate to group them together at this point. Each college still has a great alternative credit transfer policies, but we now also have new players that are worth considering. The Big 3 still remain the only 3 regionally accredited colleges in the country with an online residency requirement of 6-7 credits.

  1. Excelsior University (BIG 3)
  2. Thomas Edison State University (BIG 3)
  3. Charter Oak State College (BIG 3)
  4. Liberty University
  5. Colorado State University
  6. Franklin University
  7. Granite State College
  8. Southern New Hampshire University
  9. State University of New York (SUNY) Empire
  10. University of Maryland Global Campus
  11. Upper Iowa University
  12. Wilmington University


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

9 thoughts on “Graduation Dates Matter: Diplomas & Degrees

  1. You mentioned that one would have to pay 100% out of pocket for a degree in high school. I was under the impression that in the state of Tennessee where we live, we could do this 100% free if we play our cards right. Do you have any insight?

    1. Hi Kayla, yes! You are fortunate to live in a state that DOES have free tuition in high school, so in your case where it says “Though cheaper, you will have to cash-flow 100% of any and all costs because financial aid is not available to high school students.” this is true but the key word here is “any” because you’re lucky that you probably don’t have any as long as you’re using the TN program that is covering those costs for you (some or all).

  2. What are the pros and cons of doing an early college program through a community college? For instance, we have the opportunity to complete an Associates degree in 11th and 12th grade that will also count as high school credit. Would this be an obstacle to transfer in to say Liberty University?

    1. Lauren, there are SO MANY pros and cons to this question, that we actually teach a full class for this topic. It’s not easy to generalize since the variables really matter a lot. In other words, two families can have completely opposite outcomes when they earned the same degree. So, I can speak to your question a little bit since you mentioned Liberty University. LU is an example of a university that offers a dual enrollment program for high school students that ALSO allows for completion of an associate degree that ALSO nests inside a bachelor’s degree at LU after high school, so in this specific instance, you would be able to plan this very easily is you wanted. If you used a different college for an associate degree and your student applied directly to Liberty, then each credit is subject to approval- so they will pick and choose what they accept. It’s more risky that way, and they do that so they can incentivise you to use THEIR DE program. Make sense?

  3. Great post!!! So much confusion about this. We had a plan for the Dual Enrollment Associates degree at a local CC, but found out later they didn’t accept ACE credits. Flushed our plan right down the toilet because as Jennifer mentioned, the cost for an AA at a 4 yr school didn’t make sense for us. Even with 103 credits, he is now a Freshman at a 4 yr school in a Major he loves where we maxed transfer credits. Plan, then Plan to Pivot is my new motto!!

  4. Thank you for the information. I just called Thomas Edison this week and they require 15 online residency credits for an associate degree. Still a great option, just wondering if the 6-7 credits is still accurate.

    1. Hi Alina, if someone told you that, they misspoke. They do not require 15 RESIDENCY credits, they require 15 credits from an RA college. It does not have to be THEM it can be anyone. Of course I strongly recommend those credits come from free dual enrollment or low cost colleges. In other words, those 15 need to come in with a grade, not a pass / fail like CLEP. Residency would mean taken directly with them, and that is not a requirement. You can read more on their website “The University will accept a maximum of 90 undergraduate credits for a baccalaureate degree and 45 semester hours for an associate’s degree from non-collegiate providers regardless of the source of the credit.” That can be confused with what they told you or who interpreted it for you.

    2. I want to pull and share their full statement here since it is new and worth sharing for everyone who reads this post “Effective January 1, 2021, the University will accept a maximum of 90 undergraduate credits for a baccalaureate degree and 45 semester hours for an associate’s degree from non-collegiate providers regardless of the source of the credit. Credit recommendations from providers such as the ACE and NCCRS fall into this category.

      This 45/90 credit total maximum includes all ACE and NCCRS recommendations and credit resulting from corporate training, military training, College Board examinations reviewed by ACE, including College Level Examination Program (CLEP), the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support Exams (DSST), Advanced Placement Exams, as well as credits earned from other TESU approved educational providers. This policy applies to all applicants and enrolled students. It also applies to enrolled students who have become inactive within the last 3 years (or 5 years due to active duty military service).”

  5. Very useful article. I have earned 91 hours through Sophia, because it is affordable, and would like to earn more credit to transfer to one of the big three. However, I have concerns about the transferability of additional Sophia courses. If I am not mistaken, the Big 3 each require around 30 hours of upper level courses and 45 – 55 hours in your major to graduate.
    I hope to major in business and have 24 hours in business through Sophia. Is there a way to transfer more credit toward a bachelors degree? UMPI seems to accept more than 90 transfer hours but they won’t accept an online student under 20. I do qualify for the maximum Pell Grant award but haven’t yet used it.

    Thank you in advance for your suggestions.

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