There is a growing trend in U.S. education, including homeschooling, to take college courses in high school. These courses are being offered to homeschoolers as a way to “start college early,” save on college tuition, be more prepared for college, and other purported benefits. However, as students from these courses enter college and look back at high school, they report that the hype and the reality are not the same thing. There are proving to be some benefits to taking college courses in high school, if you choose wisely. However, families are also reporting wasting time and money on college courses in high school that they could not use toward a college degree and that actually hurt their preparation for college. Based on our interactions with families who took college courses in high school and with colleges that offer courses to high schoolers, here are some things to consider about taking college courses before college.
Myth #1: A college course is better than the same course in high school.
This should pretty much never be true.
— A college course is 16-ish weeks while a high school course is 32+ weeks. Which one can cover more material in more depth? Typically a good college course, such as a first year Spanish course, covers about 2/3 the material and depth of the same good high school course, which means it moves faster and covers less. Students taking college subjects after taking solid high school courses in that subject (Spanish, Math, or any other subject) do better in their college courses. Taking an academically solid 32-week high school course prepares you to either place out of the 16-week college course, or take that college course later from a stronger foundation, resulting in higher college grades and an easier college learning curve.
— College courses are not usually even the same course as the corresponding high school course. College Algebra is not the same set of topics as high school Algebra, and is actually insufficient preparation for high school Geometry. College Biology skips quite a bit of material from high school Biology. And so on. Taking good high school courses prepares you for other good high school courses, which prepare you to do well in college courses when you get there.
— College courses in high school are often taken at a community college. These are rarely as good as the good high school course you could be taking to prepare for the more challenging courses you will take later. Furthermore, many middle-to-upper level colleges will not accept credits from community colleges, or will accept them only as elective credits.
— College courses in high school are also often taken on-line, sometimes even from a good college. However, a course offered on-line by even a good college is not the same course as the one they teach on campus. The great professor does not teach it, and you do not have access to the facilities or resources. The material is even fundamentally stripped down, because no professor is presenting it to give it context and application for you.
— Colleges themselves generally have low regard for dual enrollment credits, especially those taken on-line. This is true even for colleges that offer their own dual credit courses on-line. Colleges know that their dual enrollment on-line courses are not as thorough or challenging as their on-campus core courses, nor as preparatory as a good high school course. Therefore, dual credit courses offered by colleges on-line or at community college are generally not a transcript booster.
Don’t get fooled by the supposed academic or transcript benefits of college in high school. You will rarely get as good a course, and you may hurt your college preparation, your college application, your college grades, and your overall college experience, before you ever even get to the campus.
Myth #2: College classes in high school will save money and time in college.
— If you plan to attend a middle or upper tier college, you will have to take a minimum number of credits from them to earn a degree from them. This means you will spend about the same time on campus, taking about the same number of classes, regardless of what you had before you got there. On the other hand, if you plan to attend a low-cost or local community college anyway, then the tuition will be the same whenever you go, and it is not inherently financially beneficial to start sooner.
— If you can reduce your required credits each semester and free up time for a job, or reduce the number of years you need to be on campus, then completing college credits in high school could be financially beneficial. However, most students who try this report that things do not work out this way.
Few students report that taking college courses in high school saved them money in the long run. Students attending middle- to upper- tier colleges often report that they wish they had taken more solid upper level high school courses and been more ready for college.
Recommendation #1: When are college courses in high school beneficial?
From our experience talking with college deans and with homeschooled students who took college courses before college, we suggest these basic criteria.
— Will the credits transfer to the colleges you are considering? Check first. It is pretty easy to find out in advance, so don’t wait until after you take the course to find out that your intended colleges don’t accept credits from your community college or another college’s on-line program.
— If the credits will transfer, what will they count toward? You may find that your dual enrollment credits just expended your general (“gen ed”) and elective credits, still leaving all your required courses and leaving you less flexibility than if you have not taken the college credits in high school.
— Is the course in your intended major, or a prerequisite for your intended major? If so, don’t take it before college — or at least don’t take the college credit. Your college professors won’t respect it, it probably won’t be preparatory enough for the next level in-major course, and it generally won’t be worth the time saved. College deans and professors have low regard for in-major courses taken on-line from any source (including their own college), or often even from other colleges.
Students who take non-major courses to count toward “gen ed” or elective requirements often find college courses in high school can be helpful — or at least don’t hurt. Students who try to take in-major courses outside of their intended college campus generally don’t find it to be beneficial, and wish they had taken a stronger preparatory course in high school instead of a college’s course on-line or at the community college.
Recommendation #2: Take a look at Belhaven High Scholars or TPS college credit.
We biased in this recommendation, of course, but we chose to include Belhaven High Scholars in TPS specifically because it is the only set of on-line college courses offered by a university that are designed specifically for high school. They are solid live full-year courses taught dynamically by the expert professors, providing 24 credits that can transfer just about anywhere. Plus, Belhaven High Scholars provides humanities credits that are helpful for those who specifically want to apply them toward general or elective credits — they don’t try to replace credits or prerequisites for your college major.
Similarly, TPS college credit course are chosen and designed to avoid these problems and maximize potential benefits. TPS college credit courses are full-year live classes, with all the rigor and preparatory value of both the high school and the college course. TPS college credit courses offer university level credit but do not require students to dual enroll, so the credit is optional. And we tie our more rigorous college credit courses, like Calculus and lab sciences, to AP test results so other colleges can recognize the level of accomplishment even though the course itself was taken on-line. And TPS screens students seeking to enroll in TPS college credit courses to help students make wise choices about which college courses to take in high school and when to take them, to maximize their own benefit while avoiding the pitfalls.
In summary, don’t get caught up in the hype or trend to take college in high school. Like much of homeschooling, college in high school has become big business, not necessarily with your academic or financial best interests in view. Good high school courses are more thorough than the same college course, and are better preparation for doing well in college, making the most of your time and money invested in college. Some courses are wise to consider as college in high school, but many are not. The “right” ones vary from student to student, making the decision a matter of individual wisdom for each course and each student.