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Key Points
  • Dual enrollment permits high school students to take college classes at a community college for credit.
  • More than 30% of community college students are in dual enrollment programs.
  • States vary in their approach toward these programs, so look up the rules in your state before applying.
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Samantha Jokela, a 21-year-old college student from Upton, Massachusetts, will be graduating from college a year earlier than expected, thanks to dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment is a state-run program that allows students to take college-level classes, often through a local community college, while they are still in high school.

As many as 3 in 10 community college students are in dual enrollment programs, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

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"I knew I wanted to get a head start on college," Jokela said.

Graduating earlier translates to money saved.

For the 2018-2019 school year, the average tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year college or university cost $21,370 for in-state students and $37,430 for out of state, according to the College Board.

Jokela also said that, unlike Advanced Placement, the program in which high school students take courses and exams that could earn them college credit, dual enrollment credits "were almost guaranteed to transfer."

The "almost" is important. AP coursework and dual enrollment have different risks and benefits to weigh.

Dual enrollment basics

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Nearly two-thirds of community college dual enrollment students nationally were from low- or middle-income families — about the same proportion as students who start in a community college after high school, according to a 2017 study from Columbia University's Teachers College.

Indeed, the cost of dual enrollment varies by state. For instance, students in Montana's program pay no tuition or fees for their first two dual enrollment classes at state university campuses. At Florida Institute of Technology, students can take dual enrollment classes for $100 per credit hour.

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Depending on the state, students may take their courses at a two-year or a four-year school. They may need to meet certain requirements — including maintaining a specified grade point average — in order to qualify for the program.

"I've certainly seen an uptick in interest in dual enrollment," said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of research at SavingforCollege.com.

"Some students believe that it helps them get into a four-year college because it shows that they've actually taken four-year college courses."

How AP differs

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More than 2.8 million students took AP exams in 2018, according to estimates from the College Board. The tests, which range in subject matter, cost $93 each to take.

The College Board says that the average student takes three exams over the course of their high school career.

If a student earns at least a 3 out of 5 on an AP exam — what the College Board deems to be a "qualified " score — they may be eligible to receive college credit.

Potentially, a $93 test could equate to getting out of a $1,800 to $3,000 college course.

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AP exam prep also adds another layer of expense. The cost can range from about $20 for a review book to $167 per hour for private tutoring via The Princeton Review.

And there's no guarantee that your college will give you credit for your coursework.

In all, 86% of the top 153 universities and colleges in the U.S. restrict AP credit in some way, according to a 2016 study by Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins University's graduate program in public management.

This means some schools will give credit for only a 4 or a 5 on the AP exam. Other institutions, including Dartmouth College, won't allow these results to count toward the credits necessary to graduate.

There's always a catch

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Students who successfully pass their dual enrollment course can get credit at that particular school.

Whether those credits will continue to count if that student transfers — say from a community college to a four-year university — may be less certain, Kantrowitz said.

Before committing to dual enrollment, be sure to research your state's program and get a handle on the requirements and how credits will apply.

"Before you pursue such a program, you should do your homework and figure out whether or not it counts the way you think it's supposed to count," said Kantrowitz.