To be fair, this is only about how I got my Associate’s Degree (two year) for free. And I still had to pay for books and some fees. Not every state does this, but based on a little googling, all states except AK, MD, MA, MS, NV, NJ, NY, and SD have a similar program. They are usually called Running Start, Dual Enrollment, or Concurrent Enrollment.
Basically, if you are a high school junior or senior, you can apply to be a part of this program. It seems that in some cases, there may still be a small amount of tuition, but parents and students who end up paying something may qualify for a $4k tax deduction. In my case, the school district paid 100% of my tuition.
Because I only know details about Washington state, I will be writing specifically about that. However, you can google “your state dual enrollment”, and get a pretty good idea of what is required. I rented all of my textbooks through Amazon, and got a pretty good deal. Textbooks are crazy expensive- so when you can rent a $200 textbook for $20, it saves a TON of money. No, you can’t sell it back at the end, but you generally will come out well ahead by renting them instead of buying. Buying used can be a good option, too, but still pretty pricey.
The majority of people who did the Running Start program in my area just did it part time. Out of the nearly 815 eligible students in my school (assuming 48% of the student body was in the last two years of high school- my school had a 96% graduation rate), only 70 kids participated in Running Start, and out of that, only one other student and I went full time. Both of us received our degree at the same time we received our high school diploma, and I probably set foot on my high school campus a grand total of four times while I was attending college (and only because I had to get the counselor to sign off on classes). For the record, this is a school where 83% of students take AP (advanced placement) classes- it was not a school of dummies. And truth be told, I thought my first two years at community college was way easier than my first two years in the high school.
Why did so few graduate with their AAS? One of the biggest reasons is that it takes very careful planning- from the start. The school district will not pay for more than 15 credits a quarter (which is 3 classes), and only 6 quarters total. And since you are only eligible for the program if you are also working towards a HS diploma, you must meet the requirements for that as well. My school gave me a list of equivalencies, and since a quarter in high school was 7 classes, and a quarter in college was 3, I had to be extremely careful in how I planned my schedule, cross-referencing the equivalency sheet frequently. I also planned two different options for the full two years before I signed up for my first quarter of classes, so I knew what I would take my last quarter of my 2nd year before I even started going.
I won’t lie to you, that was challenging. They didn’t give me a set plan of what to do, the HS counselor didn’t know much about the college, and the college counselor didn’t know anything about high school graduation. My parents actually didn’t want me to go- I’m not really sure why. I think my mom was worried that I would miss out on friendships and the “high school experience”, and while she was 100% right, that isn’t something that I regretfully reflect on missing 😉
I didn’t go to prom, I wasn’t in any clubs, I didn’t get to take any “fun” classes. No easy As or automatic grade boosters. My little brother is just about the graduate from normal high school, and I do kind of wish I got to take some of the cool classes like Ceramics, Cooking, and Marketing. I actually ended up getting a concentration in Psychology at the college, which is basically a major in a two-year degree program. Because I was focusing on graduating from two programs, which occasionally had wildly different expectations, as well as meeting the 25 Psychology credit minimum for the concentration, I definitely didn’t get to take any really cool classes.
However, I got to enter a university as an 18-year-old junior, with a grant for making the Dean’s List at community college with a 3.8 GPA. If I had stuck to my original plan, I could have graduated with a BA at 19!! Which wouldn’t have affected things on a financial scale (except for an extra 2 or 3 years of pay and IRA contributions), but it sure would have been cool to brag about 😉