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Articles / Applying to College / How Does Admissions View College Credits Earned in High School?

How Does Admissions View College Credits Earned in High School?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | April 6, 2016

Question: My daughter's high school offers three ways for students to earn college credits: AP classes, College in the High School classes, and “Running Start." Running Start is very popular as it allows students to take classes on campus at the local community college and receive college credits and even earn an associates degree while they're still in high school. My question is how do the selective colleges view credits earned in a Running Start program versus AP credits or College in the High School credits? For example, assuming she passes the class and the exam, would my daughter be as likely to receive credit at a selective school for her work in an AP biology class as for a Running Start (community college) biology class? I've heard that the community college classes aren't as rigorous as the AP classes which makes me wonder how the better universities view these programs? My daughter is a sophomore and about to enroll for her 11th grade classes and your guidance would be very appreciated. She has her heart set on NYU or Univ of Chicago. Thanks so much!

Of all the convoluted aspects of the college selection and admission process (and let me count the ways!), deciphering credit policies is near the top of the list. Even the college folks themselves often get confused when asked how many credits their registrar awards to entering students, and for what.

Many moons ago, when I worked at Smith College, our credit-evaluation policy was simple: No entering first-year student was awarded any sort of credit for work completed prior to matriculation except for AP or IB credit. But, even then, the waters were muddy because each individual academic department got to decide which AP or IB scores they would recognize, and how many credits they would give for the scores that pass muster.

Today, I don't know if the Smith policies have changed, but I do know that some colleges stick to these old-school rules and won't give credit for classes taken ANYWHERE before college begins. A few, in fact, won't even give credits toward graduation for AP or IB success (although they do allow acceleration based on test results and may also use the exams to exempt students from requirements).

So there are no across-the-board answers to satisfy your question. However one common (although not ubiquitous policy) is that many colleges do not give credit for “college-level" classes that are taught at a student's high school. Similarly, if the student takes a class on a college campus but the class is designed for high school students (usually this is a summer program) and isn't a “real" college class populated by actual undergraduates, then credit may not be granted for these classes either. The exception, however, is that the sponsoring college will almost always give credit for its own programs that are presented in the high school, and some other (usually less selective) colleges may accept these as well. The policies regarding summer classes are all over the map. My own son spent several summers taking classes on college campuses. We were told that, for an extra fee, he could earn college credit for these classes. But I knew even back then that all—or most—of the colleges that my son was likely to apply to would not grant credit for these summer classes, so I hung onto my dough.

Credits earned in dual-enrollment programs like “Running Start" are likewise evaluated differently by different colleges, and as your daughter's target-college list grows, you will have to check with each school individually to see what they accept. Commonly, if a student earns a complete Associate's Degree in a Dual Enrollment program, then he or she is eligible to apply to college as a transfer. But … if a student is using community college classes to satisfy high school graduation requirements (as almost all Dual Enrollment students are), then some colleges will not let these courses count as college credits too. And even when a college does allow some or all of these credits to count, there is likely to be variation in HOW they can count. Example: A high school student earns three credits at a community college for taking Introduction to Engineering. Then, when he or she enrolls in a four-year college, that school may grant the student those three credits but—if the student elects an engineering major—the college may only count those three credits as an elective, and so the credits can't be put toward the total number of engineering credits that the student needs for the major (or they MIGHT!). I told you it was convoluted, eh?

With a gun to their temples, many admission officials will concede that community college classes tend to be less rigorous than their AP (or IB) equivalent, yet most will respect the teenagers who challenge themselves with either and won't split hairs over the level of rigor. BUT more colleges grant credit for AP or IB classes (with appropriate exam results) than for community college classes, especially when the CC class was used to satisfy a high school graduation requirement. So your daughter might fare better with AP Bio (assuming she scores well on the exam) than with Running Start Bio, but—again—it's impossible to generalize.

And some colleges—such as the University of Chicago, on your daughter's list—will give credit to students who pass the school's own accreditation exams, regardless of their previous coursework.

In fact, the U. of C. is typical of many colleges where you probably need a degree from that institution (and, ideally, an advanced one) to wade through the credit policies. Go to: http://collegecatalog.uchicago.edu/thecollege/examinationcreditandtransfercredit/

You see, if you scroll down through this tome, that Chicago students must petition to get credit for any classes taken during high school, and these credits are restricted by a list of rules that are fairly typical of other elite schools as well:

  • Courses may not have counted toward high school graduation requirements.
  • Credit for science and calculus courses is not accepted; students should take the appropriate placement or accreditation exams at the time of matriculation.
  • Approved credit may only be used as general elective credit. Credit will not be awarded for general education requirements or foreign language courses. This restriction also applies to courses taken at the University of Chicago prior to matriculation.
  • Courses must have been offered to a cohort that included undergraduate students. Courses taught specifically for high school student programs will not transfer.

NYU's policies aren't too different although refreshingly simpler:

Credit may be awarded to students who have completed college courses while in high school, provided they received a grade of “B" or better in the courses, an official transcript from the college or university is received, and corresponding courses are offered at NYU. These courses must be taken on a college/university campus with other college/university students, and must be taught by a college/university faculty member.

NYU does not grant credit for college courses that are used to satisfy high school graduation requirements.

At NYU, as at most colleges and universities, there are school-by-school, department-by-department documents that list the credits awarded for assorted AP results, so get out your Dick Tracy Decoder Ring and start reading. 😉

By now, I fear that I may have addled your brain far more than I answered your questions. But the important points to take away from this are that college policies vary considerably; it can take some effort to determine and understand what these policies are; and … one other humdinger point that I didn't mention earlier … these policies are changeable, so the best laid plans that your daughter makes now based on the credit-granting policies of her current target schools may not help her in two years when she's college bound!

Good luck (you'll need it).

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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