An increasing number of Wisconsinites are earning college credit during high school, slicing thousands of dollars off the cost of a college degree

By Ola Lisowski and Anna Stoneman

Earning college credits at a fraction of the cost might sound too good to be true.

Believe it or not, it’s real here in Wisconsin. Just ask the thousands of Wisconsin high school students who saved at least $60 million on college tuition in a single year by taking advantage of dual enrollment opportunities.

The estimated savings come from three programs: the Early College Credit Program, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and Advanced Placement exams. Through these programs, students can take college-level courses at their high school or at an institution of higher learning.

If they succeed, students receive college credit while still in high school. If every Wisconsin high school student participating in these three programs redeemed the credit earned, parents would save an estimated $101 million a year on the cost of a college education in the state. However, not every college credit earned by a high school student will be redeemed at the UW System. Some Wisconsin high school graduates will not utilize the credits earned. If 75 percent of graduates use their credits in Wisconsin, savings would total over $80 million.

For our analysis, we estimate that approximately 50 percent of the credits earned will be redeemed. The UW does not track or publish some of the information needed to know the entire scope of savings. For that reason, we use the conservative 50 percent credit utilization estimate. Under that scenario, Wisconsin students would have saved an estimated $60.25 million in credits in the 2016-17 school year through these three programs.

AP exams

Perhaps the most familiar path to early college credit is the Advanced Placement (AP) program. The highly comprehensive AP program offers high school courses ranging from Latin and economics to computer science and studio art. In May of each year, AP courses nationwide culminate in standardized tests on their material.

In May of 2017, Wisconsin students took 73,169 exams to demonstrate their aptitude. With a 56 percent increase in the number of AP exams taken by Wisconsin high school students since 2011, the exams are becoming more popular – and for good reason. AP exams are graded on a scale of 1-5, and any score of three or higher can earn its test-taker a number of college credits.

In the University of Wisconsin System, AP exams often translate into three credits, but can count for up to 10 in cases such as AP Calculus and AP Physics. All schools in the UW System give a minimum of three credits for a score of three on an AP exam. That makes Wisconsin rather generous compared to many other colleges, which might only accept scores of four or five for credit.

In 2017, Wisconsin high school students passed 48,218 of their AP exams (65.9 percent) with a three or above. If every AP credit were transferred to a University of Wisconsin institution at a rate of three credits per exam, thousands of students would save $63.5 million altogether while still in high school.

The UW System does not publish specific records on the number of students with early college credits. For example, we know exactly how many Wisconsin AP exams were scored a three or higher. However, we don’t know how many of those credit-earning students went on to attend the UW System and redeem the college credits earned in high school. For that reason, some basic assumptions must be made about the number of AP credits successfully used by Wisconsin students at the UW System.

If all of the credits earned by Wisconsin high school students in 2017 were utilized at the UW System at a conversion rate of three credits per AP exam, families would see savings of $63.5 million overall.

Some AP exams are worth even more than three credits, pushing potential savings up even higher. Still, not all of those high school students stay in the state. Historically, about one-third of Wisconsin high school students immediately go into the UW System. If three-quarters of the AP exams were utilized in the UW System, families would see savings of $47.6 million.

Finally, a conservative estimate that assumes just 50 percent of the exams were translated into credits at the UW System totals $31.8 million in savings. That is a basic minimum estimate.

Even if the students don’t attend a UW school, they could still use the credits elsewhere, maintaining some cost savings.

AP courses are efficient and effective, but they certainly aren’t the only way advanced high school students can get ahead.

Early College Credit Program

Through the statewide Early College Credit Program (ECCP), high school students can take university-level courses for college credit. Depending on the type of course chosen, families are responsible for a fraction of the cost of each course taken for college credit.

Dual enrollment is a fast track to significant advancement and savings for families. Costs are largely covered by the university, school, and state in a cost-sharing agreement – all depending on the type of course the student chooses. Some classes in the ECCP are taught at Wisconsin high schools at a rate negotiated by the high school and university. Students then pay the deeply reduced credit cost, saving money compared to what they would pay at a traditional university for the same credit. In other cases, the cost is shared by the school district and the state, relieving families of any financial responsibility for the courses.

In 2016-17, according to the most recent data from the University of Wisconsin’s Office of Policy Analysis and Research, students jumped at the opportunity to get ahead.

In that year, 7,809 high school students attempted a total 40,308 credits in the University of Wisconsin System for a value of nearly $18.5 million.

Millions, that is, that students and families don’t take on as college debt.

As with AP exams and credits, some basic assumptions help solidify the total dollar amount saved by Wisconsin students and parents. The UW System does not publicly report how many ECCP students continue on in the System after high school. They also do not track how many of those students successfully attain credits – just how many credits students “attempt.”

If three-quarters of the students utilize their credits at the UW System, savings would total $13.9 million. If just half of all ECCP students go onto the UW System, savings on college tuition total $9.25 million. Given that students who are motivated enough to take early college classes while in high school are likelier than the average student population to attend college, we believe that 50 percent credit utilization is a safe estimate.

That means through just a single program, Wisconsin parents and students saved more than $9 million on college tuition in one year. Of course, it’s far from the only way students can earn college credit in high school.

Wisconsin Technical College System dual enrollment

Even greater savings can be found in the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS). WTCS employs qualified instructors to teach the WTCS curriculum at area high schools.

With programs ranging from business to manufacturing to public safety, WTCS dual enrollment allows students to rapidly advance through college or into the workforce.

The convenience of in-school instruction pays off. In 2016-17, over 36,600 high school students took dual enrollment courses through WTCS, earning 147,400 technical college credits valued at $19.2 million.

With millions in savings, it’s no wonder why dual enrollment participation has grown 57 percent in the past five years – and is still on the rise.

Unlike the ECCP and AP programs, WTCS publishes extensive data on its dual enrollment program.

In all, parents and students saved at least $60 million on college credits through the three programs in just the 2016-17 school year.

The total number is likely to be higher – if every student who participated in AP exams, the ECCP, and WTCS dual enrollment went onto the UW System, savings could total as high as $101 million. This figure doesn’t even account for programs such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and CLEP exams, driving overall savings even higher. Assuming that three-quarters of students utilized their early credits in Wisconsin, savings would add to more than $80 million.

Participation in these programs is on the rise, and for good reason. Outstanding student loan debt in America surpassed $1.5 trillion in early 2018, according to the Federal Reserve. In-state tuition at UW has been frozen since 2013 thanks to Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature, but the cost of college is still high. Budget-conscious students and families should familiarize themselves with the number of ways they can get ahead of the curve by earning college credit before receiving their high school diplomas.

MacIver Institute Ola Lisowski is a Research Associate at the MacIver Institute who focuses on education and tax policy. Anna Stoneman is a student at the University of Chicago and a summer intern at the MacIver Institute.