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  • Myths and Truths About College Courses in High School

    "Colleges do not offer their "running start" courses on-line to prepare you for their college or save you money -- they offer them to get you to enroll in their college..."

    There is a growing trend in 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 the wave of students from these courses are graduating college, it is apparent 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, the cost of an unwise decision can also be pretty high. To help you make wise choices, we'd like to clear up some of the larger myths of college in high school, then offer recommendations on when it is beneficial to take a college course before you enroll in 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 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 much 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 -- your choice -- with 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, or on-line without the live class. 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.

    -- A course offered on-line (no live class) by even a good college is not the same course as the one they teach on campus. The good 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 do not offer their "running start" courses on-line to prepare you for their college or save you money -- they offer them to get you to enroll in their college. It's an important difference.

    Don't get fooled by the supposed glamor of college in high school. You will rarely get as good a course, and you may hurt your college preparation, 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.

    It depends.

    -- 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. You may open up your schedule for more class options (which is worth considering), but you probably won't save much money or time.

    -- If you plan to attend a low-cost 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 report that things did not work out this way.

    Keep in mind that colleges do not offer courses to high school students because they are altruistic. The goal is to gain your full-time enrollment and tuition. It is not in the college's best interest to reduce your tuition or your time on campus, so don't expect the college to make this easy for you.

    We know of very few who report they ended up saving money by taking college courses in high school, but we know of quite a few who 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 colleges, and 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 the on-line college course you took.

    -- Is the course in your intended major, or a prerequisite for your intended major? If so, don't take it. The road to college struggle and poor college grades is paved by students who took academically insufficient courses in high school, including important major courses taken outside the college where they get their degree. We have heard from quite a few students who wish they had not placed out of courses within their major, and wish they had taken a stronger preparatory course in high school instead of the course on-line or at the community college.

    Recommendation #2: Take a look at Belhaven High Scholars.

    We may seem a bit biased in this, but we chose to include BHS in TPS specifically because it is the only set of college courses that are built specifically for high school. They are solid live full-year courses taught dynamically by expert professors, providing 24 credits that can transfer just about anywhere. Don't take our word for it, check out Belhaven High Scholars for yourself.

    In summary, don't get caught up in the current 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 best interests, or even with saving you money, as the primary motive. Good high school courses are more thorough courses than the same college course, and are intended to get your student ready to do well in college academically and spiritually, making the most of you time and money invested in college. Some courses are wise to consider as college in high school, but many are not, and the "right ones" vary from student to student, making the decision a matter of individual wisdom for each course and each student.

    (c) 2010 The Potter's School and Jeff Gilbert. May not be posted, distributed or otherwise used without permission.
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