Degree Planning 101 (part 1)

PART 1 of 4

Degree planning, in contrast to high school planning, is when your teen’s courses are selected to meet the requirements for a specific college degree.  In this 4-part series, I’d like to talk more about degree planning, especially the pros and cons.


Why not?

As a general rule of thumb, most of you shouldn’t do degree planning in high school! High school planning is generally recommended for all families unless their teen wants to complete (or nearly complete) a full degree in high school.  Degree planning takes a lot work, brain space, and the desire to work outside of the college system. Degree planning is the aggressive accumulation of college credit that matches up with a college’s specific degree requirements.  Degree planning in high school is “extreme” because it happens you’re aiming to meet college requirements before “actual” college enrollment and without access to college advisors.

In Homeschooling for College Credit, I take great care to emphasize to parents that their focus should always be on their teen’s high school diploma, not a college degree. It’s important for me to start with that reminder because forcing your teen into a degree plan too soon is likely to backfire, and we don’t want that.

Ultimately, we all want similar things for our kids- we want them to have a strong educational foundation and pursue training that leads them toward a career that supports our grandchildren!  Degree planning in high school can sound like the perfect solution, but it’s not a good fit for everyone.

Before we dig in, there are three basic paths any Homeschooling for College Credit family can take.

(1) Earning college credit that aligns with a high school plan.  This is as simple as matching up CLEP exams that coordinate to your teen’s high school courses and using dual enrollment courses if they are available.

(2) Associate degree through dual enrollment.  Families that have access to dual enrollment will also have access to college advisors.  They’ll help you pick courses that meet their associate degree requirements, and your teen can work towards completing a full associate degree in high school.

(3) Bachelor’s degree planning in high school.  This 4-part series addresses this unique goal that some families have.  In this pathway, a parent maps out alternative credits (like AP, CLEP, DSST, Sophia, Studycom, Straighterline, etc.) to match up with a college’s bachelor’s degree requirements.  To be clear, when parents do this, they are doing this without the support or guidance of a college. Most colleges do not endorse this kind of planning, and are unlikely to help you in any significant way.  Still, if you choose from a small handful of universities that are very transfer-friendly, and if you’re up for the challenge, you can map out all (or nearly all) of your teen’s credits now.  The intention is that as they graduate from high school, that their college credits will fill all (or nearly all) of the degree requirements immediately.  In this scenario, many students apply for admissions and graduation in the same semester.  The advantage of doing this is to save money or time.

What You’ll Give Away by Degree Planning

Degree planning in high school changes how you make your homeschool schedule because you’ll have to follow the requirements spelled out by a college. To give you an example of how this slight shift can make parents crazy, here’s an example:

A 9th-grade student studies for and passes the English Composition CLEP exam. This exam is worth six college credits at their target college and happens to meet their ENTIRE degree requirement for English 101 and English 102. 

The dilemma you’ll face is whether or not your teen should continue taking English courses in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. 

Some will argue “yes” because having four units of Language Arts is important, but others will argue “no” because it wastes time on courses that won’t count toward their degree.  

As you can see, this is a difficult decision to make, and it will come up time and again in other subjects as well. For a degree that doesn’t require history credit, do you omit high school history? Is that a trade-off you’ll make?

Good candidates – are you right for the job?

Even though we’ll spend these next sessions learning the basics of degree planning, keep in mind that ANY college credit your teen earns in high school puts them ahead. Your teen doesn’t have to earn a college degree in high school! But, if your teen falls into one of the categories below, you’re probably already thinking about degree planning (and maybe they are, too!). I think there are a cases when families are especially good candidates for DIY degree planning in high school.

Your teen is an entrepreneurEntrepreneur teens focus on solutions and often end up starting their own business. If your teen is an entrepreneur, you probably already feel like they are revving their engines while being stuck in neutral. Teens with small businesses, or those getting ready to launch one, tend to have an above-average level of motivation and drive. These teens may look at school as “checking the box” so they can get busy with their real life. Further, they think spending 4 years to earn a college degree might be a waste of time or money. Entrepreneurs make excellent candidates for degree planning in high school and, when given the opportunity for a self-paced curriculum or credit by exam, generally finish a degree in about half the time.

Your state has a free dual enrollment program Ok, if this is you, HELLO!!  While most states have some kind of dual enrollment program, only a few states offer these programs for free. This is not to suggest you force your teen into a program before they’re ready, but if your teen is ready and eligible, free dual enrollment will change their life. Well built degree plans max out on free options like these, and allow thousands of students to earn college degrees (for free) while still in high school! Besides the amazing cost savings, these programs allow your teen to start their career or attend grad school much earlier than their age-mates who start college after high school.

You plan to use distance learning. Many majors, especially those that don’t have a hands-on-component, such as American history, English, literature, liberal arts, business, math, psychology, politics, finance, economics, social science, geography, etc. lend themselves perfectly to a distance learning program. If distance-learning is on the table, be sure to consider using one of the “Big 3” colleges that are designed for students to plan and complete their credit prior to transfer/enrollment.  At these colleges, students who have already completed their courses at home can graduate by taking 2 courses (online). We’ll talk more about these 3 colleges in this series.

Your budget is zero. I realize that sounds extreme, but for many parents, their college savings is zero.  Parents in this category are hoping for scholarships, grants, or student loans to finance their teen’s education.  If you want to keep costs to the bare minimum, degree planning through a carefully selected college allows you to pay cash as you go, and over the course of high school and college, cash-flow the entire process.  Parents using these strategies allow their teens to accumulate college credit at the speed of the budget.   What kind of costs?  Our degree planning parents will spend on average only $3,000 for their teen’s first 3 years of college.  That’s $3,000 TOTAL for 3 years of college.  Many spend less.  Families who use this strategy are only left with 1 year of college to fund – a much more manageable number to work with.

Poor Candidates

I think it’s fair to share the scenarios where I think degree planning in high school is a bad plan. As always, you are your teen’s best guidance counselor, and there are a dozen factors at play besides these, but if you fit into one of the categories below, my advice is to keep diploma planning. Focus on high school, and allow college credit to come into your homeschool where it makes sense. Your teen can still earn 30+ college credits without degree planning!  Students who graduate from high school with college credit can apply to college as a freshman, and still enjoy the benefits and rewards of having an enormous head start!

Your teen is academically gifted.  It seems counter-intuitive but academically gifted students will benefit from the enriching environment of being on campus with smart people who challenge them. They thrive when they have access to large libraries, high-tech labs, and engaging professors. These teens aren’t annoyed by classes, they look forward to them! For these students, testing out of a class or finishing a degree early may leave them feeling unfulfilled. Allow them to pursue college classes that keep their passion burning, and allows them to engage with others who share their passion. If college classes break the budget, allow them to do independent study and follow up with Advanced Placement exams.

Your teen is undecided about their occupation. If your teen is completely undecided about their potential occupation, early degree planning is a recipe for disaster.  Selecting an occupation, or at the very least having a vague idea (“something with computers”) is an essential starting point. All great plans work backward from the occupation. Only after you know their occupation can you determine the right kind of credential or degree, and only after you know what kind of degree they need can you begin planning it. For these students, keep allowing them to explore their interests, and inject college credit where it makes sense- degree planning should wait.

Your teen’s target college doesn’t accept transfer credit. The entire premise of homeschooling FOR college credit assumes that your teen will earn college credit and that it will apply to a degree at some point. If you have your heart set on a program that doesn’t accept transfer credit, there is no point in degree planning. Simply, your teen can take college classes for their educational value, but degree planning is overkill. Still, since the college completion rate is only about 50%, my advice is to allow your teen to accumulate some college credit where it makes sense, even if you don’t think they’ll use it. Most (unused) college credit is good for 20 years or more, so in the event of a move, college transfer, or other life situation that takes them in a different direction, they’ve got credit tucked away and ready to use if need be.

Looking Ahead

Degree planning in high school allows a parent to use the knowledge that they have about a college’s credit acceptance and credit transfer policy and use it to their advantage. If your teen’s target college spells out a list of CLEP exams they’ll allow for college credit, resourceful parents can take advantage of that information by carefully choosing the exams that will meet their teen’s college requirements and high school requirements simultaneously. If you’re ready to do a degree plan, there’s a lot to learn, so let’s get started!

Keep reading:  Degree Planning Part 2

In this series:

Degree Planning 101, Part 2 of 4

Degree Planning 101, Part 3 of 4

Degree Planning 101, Part 4 of 4


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit