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Navigating college requirements is tough, especially when you’re still a high school student.

Yet many high schoolers find themselves trying to decipher their options for dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and other college-credit programs.

These programs are designed to help prepare students for college-level classes by exposing them to that level of rigor while still in high school. Students can complete college credits at a significant discount, but there are also risks, such as the potential for wasted effort, damage to college GPAs or even the loss of scholarships.

“My advice is to go into it eyes wide open,” said Sarah Richardson, director of admissions and scholarships at Creighton University.

There are two main pathways for college credit as a high schooler.

Dual enrollment: Students take a college class taught by a teacher at their school. The dual enrollment class might be listed as an AP or honors class, but it follows a local college’s curriculum. Students earn the same grade on their high school and college transcripts.

AP credit: Students in an AP class can choose to take a standardized test in early May in an attempt to earn college credit. The tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, with a score of 3 considered the equivalent of a B- to a C in a college class. However, if the student’s college accepts the score, they usually receive credit without a grade on their transcript.

Not every institution accepts dual enrollment or AP credits, and their requirements vary. One school might reject an AP test with a score of 4, while another might award a student credit for multiple classes. Another school might take a community college credit but would reject that same credit if it was earned through dual enrollment.

“It is so institution specific,” said Matt Tracy, director of general education and dual enrollment at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Some institutions may accept a certain number of credits, and some institutions may accept none.”

UNO and Metropolitan Community College both sponsor dual-enrollment classes at Omaha area high schools, and other institutions in the state offer similar partnerships. In general, UNO and MCC classes will count at local colleges and universities — provided that an equivalent course is offered on that campus — but there are always exceptions.

Renee Mead, a postsecondary counselor at Papillion-La Vista South High School, said what’s accepted or not can vary even between academic programs at the same school. A nursing program, for instance, might look at a biology class differently from an accounting program.

“We’ve found our students and parents are doing a better job of doing their homework before making their decisions,” Mead said.

While obtaining credit is important, especially for families where affordability is a concern, the most important question when considering dual enrollment and AP classes is how it will contribute to a student’s preparation for college.

Sitting for an AP exam is good preparation for college finals, said Ann Herbener, a college counselor at Papillion-La Vista High School. She said students planning to attend a four-year college should try to take at least one AP class so they have had that experience.

One particular benefit of AP exams is that students aren’t obligated to report their scores on the test, Herbener said. On the other hand, they must report dual enrollment grades, which go onto their college transcript and can result in academic probation, or even the loss of academic scholarships, if those grades are below where they should be.

Tracy tells student they need to be honest with themselves before they enroll in a dual-credit class.

“That grade will be reflected on your academic transcript for all time,” Tracy said. “It’s a great opportunity, but if you’re not ready for that academic rigor, if you don’t think you’re willing to put forth the effort you need to put forth to get a good grade, it might not be the best option for you right now.”

Students looking to apply at competitive institutions also should be cautious, Richardson said. Earning a B in an AP class is fine, but a C or lower probably isn’t doing a student any favors. What is more valuable is to focus on improving your study skills, writing and critical thinking.

“My advice to people is to know thyself,” Richardson said. “If you know it’s going to be too big of a challenge, don’t go for the AP class. The next time that you register for classes, you can always level up from there.”

Outside of classes offered by a student’s high school, enrolling directly in a college course is also an option. MCC offers its CollegeNow program to high schoolers who want to supplement their education, whether that’s general education classes or more career-oriented courses.

“CollegeNow is also a great option for home-school students or students who aren’t in a traditional high school setting,” said Jordan Pirtle, MCC’s director of secondary partnerships.

Students who plan to rack up a lot of credits should be careful about taking so many that they are considered a transfer student, Herbener said. A student with a lot of credits also could end up in classes with juniors and seniors, which could make the social transition challenging.

Tracy cautions students against planning to graduate early from college using credits earned in high school. Instead, it may be best to use them to take a couple of fewer classes as a freshman to spend more time acclimating to campus. It also can create space in a student’s academic plan for a semester abroad or a more intensive internship, or even just a couple of extra electives.

“All of those in combination can be some really significant advantages,” Tracy said.

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