High School Course Options: What Are the Choices and Can They Save Money on College?

Students today face a dizzying array of high school course options. When most of us went to high school, we were either college prep, vo-tech, or took standard high school classes. We spent all day sitting at a desk in our high school.

Times have changed! Today’s students have SO many course options, and if a student chooses to and performs at the required levels, he or she can use available coursework to help shrink their future college bill by earning college credit. Sounds great, right? So, what does a parent need to know about these options?

Two things we want to point out…

First, not every state and school district have the same options. Because we are based in Ohio, we’ll focus on Ohio. Most other states have similar options – just do some quick research to find the programs in your state.

Second, academic pace and growing-up pace are personal choices – not a one-size-fits-all thing. Some students are compelled to race forward and others (the majority!) craft the pace right for them. We always embrace the student’s needs first. All options have pros and cons to be weighed. Just knowing about the options is the appropriate first step.

All these options can be overwhelming to 8th grade parents sending their kids to high school next year. Take advantage of our FREE Looking Ahead: Planning for Success in High School and Beyond program to get a great foundation of knowledge about the years ahead. (We even have a webinar for those outside Central Ohio and Cincinnati.)

A note on course rigor

We always recommend a student takes classes that fit their abilities. Challenging without being overwhelming. Some kids will argue for the easiest road to get the highest grades. This can backfire on college applications.

Sometimes students will say, “Colleges don’t know if my school offers honors, so I will just take what I know is less challenging!” Well, yes, they can know. And they do. Counselors typically submit a school report to colleges with a student’s transcript. This report lists all of the challenging classes that the high school offers.

Advanced Placement (AP)

Created by the College Board, AP courses are offered by your high school as an approximate “college level” course. (They really are high school classes that earn a high school grade.) They are taught at a faster pace (more like college), and students need to be academically ready for the rigor and faster pace of AP classes. Every AP course culminates in an optional fee-based final exam that’s graded on a score of 1 to 5.


  • College admission officials like to see students challenge themselves.
  • Achieving a high exam grade (3, 4, or 5) may exempt you from taking the entry level class in that topic in college. Example, achieving a 5 on AP German could equal 4 semesters of college German courses. Skipping these courses in college saves money OR opens spots in your schedule to take other classes.
  • The pace and demands of AP classes helps students prepare for the rigor of college classes.
  • AP courses are often weighted by the high school when calculating a student’s GPA. Instead of earning 4 points for an A, an AP student would earn 5 points on a 4-point scale.


  • Any potential for use of the course in college depends on one exam, on one day, with no make-ups! If a student is not a good test taker, sick, or not well-prepared by their teacher, scoring a 3, 4, or 5 will be a challenge.
  • Not every college accepts AP coursework for earned credit. Some may. Some may not. Some may only if the exam score was a 4 or 5. Taking the AP classes may help a student get in, but they may not apply the credit. (Check each candidate college’s website for specifics.)
  • Not every student is ready to take AP classes. Carefully weigh the best class for each student.

Honors Classes

Honors classes may be offered by the high school (often in 9th and 10th grades) to provide more challenge and more in-depth examination of a topic. Honors coursework is not standardized and can vary immensely from school to school. Students should only take an honors class in a subject they are prepared for and/or are extremely motivated to do well in.


  • Provides challenge to a student who may become bored in the standard class in an area they excel in.
  • Shows the college that a student is striving for more rigor in their courses.
  • Allows a student who may not be ready for an AP class to still challenge themselves.


  • Does not provide money savings in college. Colleges do not reward honors courses with earned credit.
  • If a student is not prepared for an honors course and their grade reflects that, their GPA will suffer. Honors courses may not be weighted like AP courses. So, a “C” will be 2 points (on a 4-point scale) and will negatively affect their GPA. A “C” in an AP class will earn 3 points—the same as a “B” in a standard class.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate® (IB) program was created in 1968 as an advanced educational option for students. The IB Diploma is earned by following a specific series of courses in every subject during 11th and 12th grades. Exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being the highest. Students can take coursework on the diploma path or just individual IB classes


  • Colleges reward college credit for higher level IB courses where a student achieved a certain grade level. Here is an example from Stanford.
  • Students in the diploma program receive a well-rounded curriculum of challenging coursework with an emphasis on writing and research skills.
  • The “international” nature of the diploma encourages a global, culturally sensitive perspective.
  • High school grades are typically weighted when calculating the GPA.


  • Students do not receive financial aid simply because they are IB students. College savings are recognized by earning college credit.
  • The most competitive universities will expect high scores across all six subjects (English, math, science, language, the arts, and humanities). Students must perform well in all of them.

College Coursework

Whether it’s called “dual enrollment” or “College Credit Plus” (as it is here in Ohio), more and more students are leaving their home school to earn transcripted college credit at their local universities. Some high schools are also offering these college courses within the walls of the high school as well. (We wrote a blog going deeper into this topic.)


  • Students may get to leave their home school and experience the wider spectrum of college classes available.
  • It gives students the real experience with what a college class is like.
  • College credit can be earned without having to rely on a final exam grade.
  • Colleges reviewing a student’s application will note the more challenging rigor demonstrated.
  • Some students find the pace of a college class easier than the accelerated pace of an AP course.


  • Not every college accepts transferred credits. Be sure to seek out those colleges that do in your college search.
  • The college application process may need to be closely monitored to ensure proper credit is given for the college classes a student has taken (a college transcript should be sent to colleges with the application).
  • Transportation to and from the college is not provided by the home school.
  • A student who is not ready for a college class may struggle and cause their GPA to be affected.

A Multitude of Other High School Course Options

Mentorship, internships, marketing programs (like DECA), STEM, teacher academy, other career academies, career technology schools, service learning, and ROTC are just a few of the vast number of additional options available to high school students today.


  • Students get away from sitting at a desk and makes their day more interesting.
  • They connect with experiences a student wouldn’t otherwise receive.
  • Students can earn real career knowledge by exploring their interests in the amazing programs offered.
  • Programs like these make a college applicant stand out in a sea of sameness.
  • Certifications can be earned for real job experience.
  • Allows students to explore their interests and skills before heading to college with a declared major.


  • These options probably will not save any money off of college tuition. However, colleges will be highly interested in the programs a student engaged with….and these types of real world experiences make a college applicant stand out.

The Key Takeaway?

You need to understand all the options available. Without knowing what is out there, how can any choices be made? Starting to plan in the freshman or sophomore year will allow students to arrange their schedule to incorporate some of these high school course options.

When making these plans for high school choices, our programming is SUPER helpful. It’s all about planning. We talk about course options with your destination in mind and answer your questions. Need a one-on-one discussion to help plan? Book a Private Consultation.

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