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Beware of This Dual-Credit TRAP

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #91, 2009.

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Mary Pride

Just when you think you finally know it all, because you have been homeschooling for decades, along comes solid proof there is always something more to learn.

Here’s what I mean.

For years we at PHS have been encouraging families to explore the “dual credit” option.

Briefly, this consists of enrolling your high-school student in college classes, and then counting them for both high-school and college credit.

For example, your daughter could take Precalculus at your local community college. As a one-semester college course, this is worth two semesters of high-school math, or one full Carnegie unit. And later, when your daughter enrolls in college, this class will be counted as college credit as well, even if she attends a different institution, provided that the new college accepts that particular class for transfer credit.

It sounds great, right? No downside!

That’s what we thought, until our youngest son ran into the Dual Credit Financial Aid Trap.

Our Story

We initially thought that engineering would be a great career choice for Gregory, given his personality. Good engineering schools are hard to get into, let alone with really good scholarships, so we thought he would have an advantage if he took lots of difficult science and math courses while in high school.

The easiest way to get college-level chemistry, physics, calculus, and so on was to enroll Greg in our local community college as a dual-credit high-school student.

So, starting his sophomore year in high school, Greg started taking math and science dual-credit courses. Since his older sister had sparked an interest in theatre, he also signed up for an “Introduction to Theatre” course that he dropped once he saw the sleazy plays this particular professor was assigning. We didn’t think that withdrawing from the course practically at the beginning of the semester was a big deal.

This was our first mistake.

Operating on the theory that it’s good to try out things in high school before committing to a college major, Greg signed up for (and quickly dropped) classes in filmmaking, HTML, and biology. Meanwhile he kept racking up the advanced math and science courses, plus more in his emerging interest areas of political science and writing.

Not counting his AP credit, by the time Greg finished high school he had completed 66 hours of college credit out of the 92 total hours he had signed up for at one time or another.

This would not have been a problem if all these hours had been geared towards a particular major. In fact, completing a two-year college degree in the last two years of high school is exactly what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is trying to make happen for thousands of “at risk” high-school students.

But since Greg (who is not “at risk”) had been taking (and trying out) a wide variety of courses, many for personal enrichment, and many more that didn’t apply now that he wasn’t going into engineering, he ran afoul of a little-known federal financial aid regulation.

The “Satisfactory Academic Progress” Trap

Having been down the financial aid road before with my first five children, I knew what to expect when it came to Pell grants, loans, and state scholarships such as Bright Flight (for which Greg’s high ACT score qualified him).

So I was baffled when his financial aid package didn’t include any of these.

The reason? “Lack of satisfactory academic progress.”

This was a real head-scratcher. Since Greg had not even started his first day as a college freshman, how could he not be making satisfactory progress? And since his GPA was far above what was required to remain enrolled, what were they talking about?

It turns out that you can only qualify for financial aid for up to 150% of the credit hours required to earn a degree at an institution. This means credit hours attempted, including courses from which you withdrew, not just credit hours earned.

Since a 2-year degree is typically 60 credits, financial aid only applies to 90 credits “attempted.” And Greg had more.

Since colleges also calculate a “completion” rate based on the ratio of courses completed to courses attempted, even that statistic didn’t look good. Never mind that Greg was only “trying out” the courses, not dropping out at the last minute.

God Bless the Financial Aid Department

When we first asked the financial aid department about this, the desk clerk basically told us this was the way it was and it was just too bad. In fact, according to her, Greg couldn’t even collect his state merit scholarship due to his “lack of satisfactory progress.”

Sure, that made sense. I could see why completing Calculus II while in high school would make a student “unsatisfactory.” Not to mention that every credit attempted or earned was paid for with our own money!

It turns out that financial aid departments do have some discretion as to how to apply these rules. When we laid our case before him, the department head came to our rescue with an override that allowed Greg to collect his financial aid. He told us we would have to reapply for the override every semester, and would face the same situation again when Greg transferred to a four-year college (since by then he would be bumping up against the “credits attempted” limit for a four-year college).

Action to Take

I certainly intend to ask our Congressman to change the rules to exclude credits earned (or attempted) in high school. In the meantime, now you know:

  1. Don’t sign up for dual-credit courses that won’t apply to your major, and
  2. Only withdraw from a course if you really need to; don’t “try out” courses just for fun. Because losing your college financial aid is no fun at all.

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