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Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

There’s a question that’s been creating plenty of angst for me as a parent being sucked into the vortex that is high school: Should my incoming ninth grader take a version of Algebra 2 that would give him both high school and college credit?

Word on the street is these types of advanced courses can help lower the bill for higher education. By how much, I wondered, and would universities hundreds of miles away agree to this deal?

It turns out, while experts say such dual enrollment courses do offer abundant benefits, saving money isn’t necessarily one I can count on.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

What is Dual Enrollment?

I knew teens could potentially earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. But this idea of high school students enrolling in actual college courses was new to me, even though dual enrollment programs have existed for decades. What’s more, these initiatives—which also go by names like dual credit and concurrent enrollmenthave grown significantly over the years. About a third of high schoolers participate in some form of dual enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment surged by more than 70% between 2002-03 and 2010-11, when the most recent national study took place.

Participation in the UConn Early College Experience offers a more timely snapshot: Today 13,500 Connecticut high school students are enrolled, up from 3,000 in 2005.

Most dual enrollment courses are taught in high schools—often by college faculty or certified high school instructors. Some are taught online or on college campuses.

Do All Colleges Accept Dual Enrollment Credits?

One critical aspect in whether these courses can save money is how likely colleges are to give academic credits for them.

Forty years of studies suggest that most colleges will accept credit earned through dual enrollment programs, says Tim Stetter, director of UW in the High School at the University of Washington Continuum College.

Indeed, credits gained through UConn’s high school program transfer about 87% of the time, according to Brian Boecherer, executive director of UConn’s Office of Early College Programs. He maintains a credit transfer database for UConn’s courses that he says is a good proxy for students across the country to learn how schools view credits earned from other four-year institutions.

Freshmen who arrive on a college campus with a handful of credits might be able to graduate early and thereby save some cash.

However, while dual enrollment credits are likely to meet general education requirements, a college can decide the credits won’t count toward a specific major. “Depending on a student’s degree plan—particularly in STEM fields—the college course they’re taking in high school may not fulfill a specific requirement for that degree,” Stetter says.

More Research Needed to Determine Whether You'll Save on CollegeTuition

When David Troutman, associate vice chancellor at The University of Texas System (UT), asked students what sold them on taking dual credit classes, a number said the courses would save them money. However, Troutman says, “There are no data points to prove that case.”

So Troutman and his team set out to find an answer as part of a study that followed the academic records of students who came to UT campuses in 2010 through 2015. The researchers found students don’t see a significant reduction on their college debt unless they enter with at least 60 credit hours—that’d be like starting your bachelor’s degree program with an associate’s degree already under your belt. Most students won’t get anywhere close to earning that much credit while in high school.

Troutman says more research is needed to get a better idea about potential savings. One factor that needs further study: fees. While some programs students take in high school are free, others carry a price tag. One student he spoke with paid $300 for a course and books, for instance.

Benefits to Dual Enrollment Beyond Saving Money

Even if the courses don’t save you money, they can offer other advantages. Students could have more time to do internships, study abroad, or simply explore different options. Credits “provide a little bit of wiggle room for changing majors and taking courses and dropping courses,” Troutman says.

Advocates say the programs help high schoolers develop critical thinking skills, get a sense of what to expect in a college classroom, and boost confidence. Feeling successful in even one course can be beneficial to student success, says Amy Williams, executive director of the accreditation body National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP).

John Ohotnicky, university registrar at Clark University, adds: “Regardless of the grade earned and if credits are awarded, taking dual enrollment courses demonstrates the student’s desire to be challenged and shows they are intellectually curious—aspects that any admission office would like to see.”

Tips for Taking Dual Enrollment Courses

The opportunity to be challenged is why Jana Reishus, a small-business owner in Dallas, encouraged her three kids to take dual credit classes. “I didn’t really look at it as [the courses] were doing us any favors on college tuition,” she says.

If you are particularly interested in using them as a cost-saving measure, Williams recommends students speak to the admission office at the college they’d like to attend.

Ask not only if your credits will transfer, but also how they will be counted. She suggests asking, “I’m considering this major or these majors. Will these courses be accepted as degree credits?”

And since you can advocate for the acceptance of transfer credit, save the class syllabus. You can use it and your transcript to demonstrate parity if you’re asked to take a very similar course, Williams says.

Reishus, the Dallas parent, suggests my son go for the rigor if he could handle it, but not take a course just because his friends are. I like her perspective. Though I think he’d do fine, we’re likely going to hold off on adding a college-level math course into the high school equation.

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