You read the title right. I went to community college when I was 15 years old. Before that, I was homeschooled in a conservative and very religious family. I won’t get into the “before”, but what I will tell you is that I saved some serious money getting into college early. It was free college after all.
The free college program for high school students
Running Start is a dual credit program that allows high-school students to enroll in college courses as long as they are level 100 or above. The program partners with local community colleges and some universities. You can enroll in the Running Start program in your Junior and Senior years of high school.
If you’re enrolled in a public high school, the counselors check off and assign you courses. This is to ensure you can graduate high-school on time. If you attend a private school or are homeschooled (like I was), then you get to assign your own courses and work with the college counselor.
The program is offered in the following states:
- New Hampshire
There are other versions of Running Start programs that can be found across the country, but they may have variations in the cost and how many credits students can take. There are pros and cons of dual enrollment programs, but overall, I found it to be very worth it.
How did I get into college at 15?
I got into college at a really young age. This meant I was able to graduate with my Master’s degree by the time I was 21. Since I was homeschooled, I was a year ahead in my studies. That meant that at 15, I was Junior in high school and turned 16 mid school year.
To prove competency, the Running Start program in Washington state requires that students pass three exams in:
If you can pass the exams, it demonstrates that you can handle college courses at level 100 or above.
It was summertime, and I marched my 15 year old self right into that college and took the tests to get into the program. Thankfully, I had an idea of the process since my brother, one year older than me, got into the program the year before. I completed the application and signed up for my first full quarter of classes to start in the fall.
Almost free college for two years
The first year I was enrolled in the program, the classes were entirely free. I only had to pay for books, supplies, and class fees. I was taking 15 credits per quarter and really maximizing the free college. It helped that I loved everything about school and I didn’t have a public school counselor telling me which courses I could take.
In my second year, the funding was restricted for the program. I was responsible for paying 10% of the tuition plus the usual books, supplies and class fees. The Running Start program is funded as part of the state’s education budget. For this reason, the fees and costs can change year to year. Still, having 90% of your tuition covered is pretty hard to beat.
I graduated with my high-school diploma and Associates in Arts
As I approached graduation, I realized that it was really important for me, a homeschooled student, to get a state-issued high-school diploma. In order to get this, you need to complete your Associates in Arts. The state will then automatically issue you a diploma with your degree. You just check a box when applying for graduation.
Beyond the essential need to get a high school diploma, I wanted to get an AA at the same time I graduated from high school for two more reasons:
- I knew that if I could get an AA, it would be easier to transfer over to any school without losing credit or having to re-take general education credits
- I knew that I was paying for all college myself and I needed to take advantage of as many free or reduced tuition courses as I could
Going to community college so young opened up doors for me early on. Not only did I have free college classes, but I was diving into school clubs and programs around art and writing. I was in art shows, published in magazines and had the opportunity to work within the community while going to school. I was proud to walk in that college graduation with honors surrounded by all the friends I had made at school.
The secret to transferring into a four-year University
What I didn’t know about was the power of transfer partners that offered dual enrollment. Many community colleges partner with surrounding Universities to make transitioning seamless.
My community college partnered with schools in Oregon and Washington to offer students dual enrollment. I stayed enrolled in community college and a University at the same time.
Dual enrollment also means that all (or almost all) credits apply to the degree you’re pursuing. The benefits of being in dual enrollment were:
- No application fees
- You can choose to take a course at the community college if it is cheaper than the ones offered at the University
- The transfer of your credits was a much smoother process (compared to what I heard from friends), but I did have an AA
The applications for dual enrollment were tough to track down, but one of my professors told me about it and who I should seek out. You may need to do some digging if you want to look into this option. It was surprisingly easy, and I heard back from the colleges right away.
It’s still true that I have thousands of dollars in student loan debt
Even though I was smart about my first few years of college, I didn’t pay attention to the school I chose for dual enrollment. It was a private school with tuition that was insanely expensive. They were one of the few schools that had the concentration I wanted and was close to my Aunt’s where I needed to live. I did qualify for several scholarships because of my grades and worked four jobs, including work-study while in undergrad.
Still, the tuition just kept adding up. Between my undergrad and grad school (also a private school) I racked up about $68,000 of student loan debt. This ballooned to about $78,000 over the 5 years I was paying the minimum on an Income-Driven repayment plan while pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Now, with the change of careers, I am paying it off with my partner one chunk at a time.