College Hacking Dual Enrollment

How my son saved 2 years and $18,258 in college tuition

One of the most difficult things that will slow down your path to FIRE is debt.

And one of the most common sources of debt is the student loan.

It sets your financial independence timeline back by years, and even worse, you gotta pay it off using post-tax dollars.

Smarter people than me have figured out ways to optimize for financial aid and scholarships.

Those tips are awesome, and we'll get to those in future posts.

But what my son and I did was a lot more predictable and available, and helped us slash his college tuition by more than $18,000. We also halved the time he’ll need to get a degree.

How? Two words.

Dual Enrollment.

What is dual enrollment?

Dual enrollment is the practice of allowing high school students (typically in their junior and senior years) to also be signed up for college level classes. By doing this they earn credit for both the GED and the college degree.

It is also called concurrent enrollment, and the way it is rolled out varies from state to state.

In some states, students go to community colleges and state universities for college-level classes that earn them credit for their GED and at the tertiary institution they attend.

In others, students take college-level classes at their high school, taught by educators who are certified as required by the state.

One of the key benefits of dual enrollment is the potential to give high school students a head start in college. This might save them up to 1-2 years at the college level.

That is in itself a sweet deal.

But even sweeter is how much money dual enrollment can save you if you are planning to put your kids through college.

How much you can save depends on:

  • whether your state has a dual enrollment policy in the first place.
  • and if so, how many credits it will pay for each student per quarter.
  • Whether you are able to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities in tuition fees.


Our Case Study: Washington State’s Running Start Program

When my son was in high school several years ago, it became clear to us that he was headed for a stint as a soldier.

Knowing that his years in uniform was going to put him behind his schoolmates, I looked into ways to help him catch up.

Well, my research opened up the path for him to shave 2 years off college and saved us more than $18,000 in tuition fees.

When he was done with his military service, he was able to slide right into his Junior year at the University of Washington.

Ok, he took a year in-between the army and college to launch his Amazon FBA business, did well, THEN slid right into his Junior year.

The math:

Here’s how the math worked for us:

In 2016, the cost for 180 credits over a four-year program at the University of Washington was $36,516.

This is tuition only, and excludes all other fees and costs associated with pursuing a degree.

What we will end up paying in total when he graduates next year: around $18,258, spread out over 6 quarters.

Financial aid and scholarships will bring that number even further down, but I’ll exclude that at this time to keep things simple.

Washington State’s dual enrollment program is called Running Start, and allows for 11th and 12th grade students to take prescribed courses at community and technical colleges in the state.

As of 2016, Running Start paid for up to 15 credit hours per quarter, per student. There were some expectations that had to be met, such as a 2.0 GPA (yes, it's a very low bar), and courses that had high school equivalency towards a GED.

In our case, those 15 credits were worth $1,283.85 at the community college my son went to, per quarter, or about $7,700 for 90 credits over six quarters.

That’s a nice chuck of change, courtesy of the Washington State legislature!

But wait, there’s more!

If you picked the courses carefully, you could line up a solid curriculum that would count towards an associate degree, which could then be transferred, credit for credit, at the University of Washington.

Research and consultations were essential to successful credit transfers and building a foundation of prerequisite 100 and 200 courses that would be accepted at the University of Washington.

Some courses weren’t actually part of the GED core requirements, but we were able to get them paid for as electives.

Other courses were so desirable that we paid for them out-of-pocket because they were needed for his associate degree and would transfer as an equivalent pre-requisite.

Thanks to the concept of tuition arbitrage, we were able to more than double the value of the $7,700 the state paid for Running Start.

Assuming 20 credits per quarter, here’s what the tuition arbitrage looked like for my son:

  • A credit cost $81.07 at his community college.
  • A similar course would cost $184.45 per credit at UW.
  • The tuition arbitrage was $103.38 per credit, IF those credits were transferable.

It was like getting a great discount on tuition, again PROVIDED the credits from the community college could be transferred.

This meant that if my son could load up on one extra course a quarter (worth 5 credits), we could save $103.38 x 5 = $516.90 a quarter, or $3,101.40 over 6 quarters.

Yes, we had to pay 100% of the 16th-20th credit hours (since the 1st 15 credits were paid for by the state), but a savings of $516.90 or 56% was an excellent deal!

By the time my son shipped out to boot camp, we had check all the boxes he needed to graduate from high school with a GED AND an Associate Degree in Integrated Studies.

We also found an unexpected bonus – since he was transferring with an Associate Degree into UW, he didn’t have to take the SAT. That was neat.


Your Miles May Vary

In the travel rewards game, there is an apt expression that we borrow from the automobile industry: Your Miles May Vary.

This is especially true when it comes to dual enrollment and tuition arbitrage.

Related: Applying to Colleges? Why You Should Consider Small Private Schools

Every state has different policies and funding thresholds, and the local situation may vary between school districts in the same state.

You can see what your school district and state’s stances are on dual enrollment by checking with this national organization.

Is this a good fit for 2nd generation FIRE?

While we appreciated the advantages that our state’s dual enrollment program gave us, there were a few things that we had to consider before signing up:

  • Back when he was 17, we had to make sure our son had the maturity and discipline to handle a tertiary education experience.
  • We knew that not all credits earned might be accepted for transfers by every university, especially private universities and out-of-state institutions. So we had to make some guesses as to which university he would go to.
  • A lot planning, consultations, and research was needed to make sure the ducks were lined up in a row. Thankfully, research and spreadsheets are right up my alley.

One of the unintended consequences of maximizing the benefits of dual enrollment was that we ended up having too much money in my son’s Vanguard 529 Target Date fund.

Since the funds can be transferred to our younger kids, or even used by my wife and I, that’s not a bad problem to have!

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11 thoughts on “How my son saved 2 years and $18,258 in college tuition”

  1. I second this plan. I took dual credit classes in high school with the local community college. Unfortunately my state is broke so my parents had to pay for it but they were happy to help out. I knew which school I wanted to go to, so I looked up the transfer codes for classes, and then only took those classes in high school. I graduated with 23 college credits to my name. In college I didn’t have to take any math or science classes, and was done with 2 out of 3 English classes. This really helped when I missed a semester of classes to do basic training!

    • Gwen your like the perfect case study of what first generation FIRe looks like when you actually implement these life hacks. so Awesome! You house hack, Travel Rewards, and College Hacked. If only you had a blog 🙂

  2. First of all, love the concept. My daughter is doing the same thing and will graduate high school this spring and enter college next fall as a junior.

    Second, does it really take 180 credits to graduate from Washington State University? That seems really high…

  3. My daughter is doing this next year. She will graduate high school with almost a year completed and all of the rxspenses are covered by her high school.

  4. Not the same level, but worth consideration as an alternative: I did 3 AP classes in high school that earned me credit for 2 classes each in college, enabling me to graduate a semester early & save a chunk of private college tuition & board. Well with the $75 or whatever it cost to take the AP exam 20 years ago. As an added bonus, the credit the AP Calculus earned me counted as the Math credit I needed when I went back for my MBA.

  5. You could also reward your son’s hard work by allowing him to keep the 529 plan in his name, and allow it to grow and eventually he could use it for his own children’s education. This would benefit him by reducing the financial burden of saving for his own children’s higher education. In essence, his hard work as a young man would have paid for a healthy chunk of his children’s education. If my son, who is entering his senior year of high school, is fortunate enough to not have to touch all of the money we have set aside for him in a 529, we plan to allow him to keep it and use it as he chooses, rather than pass it on to our other kids. We figure that what we have saved for him and his sisters is fair and equal, but if any of them chooses to really knock it out of the park, academically, they get a nice fat life bonus!

  6. Dual enrollment is definitely the key part of how I graduated debt free. It was just starting out when I enrolled some 13 years ago now. Couldn’t recommend it more. I used a few other strategies as well, like distance Ed in the summers from the college I was attending, CLEP testing out of about a semester worth of classes, academic scholarship, and working my butt off waitressing. Success also depends on picking a major and a school to graduate from early so you can make sure every credit counts.

    All said and done, I graduated college in a total of 3 years of college work or 1.5 years after I graduated high school thanks to the dual enrollment. I had just turned 20 and wasn’t even eligible to participate in my company 401k plan at my first job out of college which required participants to be 21. Entering the workforce earlier is also a key benefit here – not only are you NOT spending college tuition, you have higher earning power sooner.

  7. I have always wondered what career would be the best return on investment financially. For example, if you become a doctor you typically rack up a lot of debt but then have a higher salary which you then have to use to pay off that debt, where as if you became a plumber your schooling will cost less but your salary will be less. To do this your would have to apply a lot of assumptions (schooling for career x costs $100,000 , schooling for career y costs $20,000 and also incorporate years of working). Just something I have been thinking about that might have been something to consider earlier on in my life before I chose my education course and career path. Of course when I was 18 FI was something that I didn’t even know existed.

  8. I volunteer at a community college as chair of the trustee board and we provide concurrent enrollment as well as associate degrees that transfer to four year schools. However, while that works for many degrees for some, like my chemical engineering major, there are few or no courses offered that will transfer because engineering students skip past algebra and college chemistry and physics and usually don’t take liberal arts courses.

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