As a high school student, Holly Harvey was determined to take as many college courses as possible.
There was just one problem – the nearest community college was 45 minutes away from her home in Carrollton, Texas. And she didn't have her driver's license.
So Harvey got creative and signed up for an online course at the community college. By the time she earned her high school diploma, she had already completed 45 hours of classes that could be applied toward a college degree.
"I was able to graduate from college with two degrees in three years," says Harvey, who was thrilled to save money by graduating early.
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Enrolling in an online college course can have a variety of benefits for high school students. For students like Harvey, they provide the opportunity to earn college credit without having to commute to campus. Online courses can also expose students to a wide range of subjects not available at their high school.
But the courses aren't for everyone, experts say. Below are four facts high school students should know about online college courses.
1. They can cut college costs. In some cases, high school students can use online college courses to lower their overall higher education spending. Harvey, for example, was able to take online college courses for free through a dual credit program – an option that allows students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit.
Many politicians and school officials have embraced the programs as a way to help students pay for college.
"We know that participation in dual enrollment is increasing," says Melinda Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. "All but four states have policies addressing it."
Even students who don't have a dual credit program at their high school can use online college courses to their economic advantage, experts say.
For example, students who plan on attending four-year institutions after high school can save money by taking online courses from community colleges, which typically charge lower tuition. Students can then transfer their community college credits to their four-year school.
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2. They can help assess college readiness. Taking an online college course while in high school can also help students get a sense of what will be expected in a college course.
"It's clear that in today's environment a huge proportion of students who go to college are not prepared for college-level work," says Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of education policy and strategic alliances at McGraw-Hill Education. "Taking an online course gives students a glimpse of what is expected in college so they won't be among those who are unprepared and therefore less successful."
Harvey, now 21, says she wouldn't have had as much confidence going on to college had she not taken online courses in high school.
"I'd already had the college experience," she says.
If students already know they aren't prepared for college, Livingston recommends they spend part of their senior year or the summer after taking online remediation courses to sharpen their skills.
3. They can be a gateway to challenging, new material. Online courses – be they traditional college courses for credit or massive open online courses – can be a great way for high school students to expand their knowledge or discover their passions.
Colin LeMoine, a 14-year-old rising sophomore at Preble High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says he's taking an online class on medical terminology at a community college this upcoming school year because he wasn't feeling challenged by his high school courses.
"I get to work at my own pace and if a unit is super easy, I can just breeze through it," he says.
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4. They can make a positive – or negative – impression on admissions officials. Successfully completing an online college class is a great way for students to signal to university officials that they are ready for college-level work, experts say.
LeMoine, for example, is betting his college courses will help him get into the school of his choice.
"I want to present myself as best I can when I actually get into college," he says. "The more classes that I take that are advanced, the more I get noticed."
But experts warn that taking an online course can also turn into a liability for students who don't perform well. Your college transcript, they warn, can follow you forever.
"Sometimes students think that because the course is online it's not as important or it's easier somehow," Livingston says. "What they will find very quickly is that if you don't treat an online course with the same seriousness with which you approach an in-person class, you will fail quickly and horribly. It's not class-light. It's class-different."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.