List of College Hacks for High School Freshman

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This post is a bit late, but I wanted to give a recap of my oldest son’s (15 years old at the time of this writing) first year of high school … and how we (our son, my wife, and I) are beginning to take some steps to hack college for him.

As I write this, my son just finished up his first quarter of the fall semester of his sophomore year in high school.

Before he gets too far along in his high school career, I wanted to document his freshman year and the steps we are taking now to help him hack college tuition costs.  

Actually, we want to help him hack more than just tuition … teaching him how to save on future expenses like housing and transportation will be critical in our parenting as well.  But college is a huge potential expense that we want to be prepared for.

A Bit About Our Family and Sending our Kids to College

For anyone new to the blog, here is a quick overview of our family and the college plans we have (right now) for our children.

My wife and I have 3 kids and have plans to send them all to college at some point.  For now, we are experimenting with several different options to help pay for college for our oldest (who is now a high school sophomore).

I will first point out that college isn’t for everyone … especially if you are going to rack up a ton of student loan debt getting a degree that can’t land you a job.  But my wife and I still feel that as long as we can limit college expenses … a college degree is still something good to have.

So our goals for all 3 children are the following -

  • ​Graduate with a 4-year college degree
  • ​Finish college with $0 in Student Loan Debt
  • ​My wife and I would take on $0 debt as well (we need to focus on our own finances and retirement planning)
  • Use different tools to help hack all costs of college (it may be different tools we use for each kid … we really don’t know)

And I will state it again … college certainly isn’t for everyone.  We realize that one or all of our kids may not end up going to college.

I think you can find plenty of careers that pay very well that don’t require a 4-year college degree.  

Ultimately, if any of our kids decide not to attend college, we won’t overreact.  But they will need to have a plan of their future path and if they want their parents help, we need to be involved in that plan.

Enough about our goals for hacking college for our 3 children, let’s take a look at our plans to get there.  

Before we get started, I would like to point out that we don’t have all the answers yet … not even close.  So in this post, I will simply provide the steps we took over the last year to help our son begin to hack college. 

Hopefully over the next 3 years (and beyond) we can build upon these steps.

How to Start Hacking College as a High School Freshman

While maybe not as important as his junior or senior years of high school, we have found that as a freshman there are still steps you can take to start hacking college.

But before we get to a summary of his freshman year, let’s look back to when he was in middle school.

Steps We Have Already Taken to Help Pay for College

Even before our son was a high school freshman, there were a few steps we took to help prepare for college.  These actions may not seem like much on their own, but they are small but important steps that can be stacked on one another.

And some of them were not necessarily intentional as a way to hack college.

Here are the steps we took before our son entered high school.

1 - Leverage 529 Savings

Back when our oldest son was born, we decided to open up a 529 college savings plan for him.  We contributed a good amount of money to it over the years and even opened a second account for our second son when he was born.

But over the past 4 or 5 years, we decided to scale back our investments and opted not to open a third account when our youngest child was born.

Instead of trying to fully fund our kids college education through investments like a 529 plan, we decided to take an alternative approach.  The 529 plans will still be used … but only as part of our overall strategy to hack college.

At the time of this writing, we have approximately $90,000 combined between two 529 plans.  

Our goal is to offset some of our kids college tuition with these funds.  Hopefully we can stretch out the balances (which should grow from the investments over the years) for all 3 of our children.

The best way to describe this college hacking tool is a way to supplement our children's college expenses.

2 - Take High School Courses in Middle School

As an 8th grader our son took Math I and Spanish I class.  The school district we live in gives high school credit for both of these classes … assuming the student passes, which he did.

This may not seem like much … but I think it is huge.  Even before starting high school last fall, our son had credit for passing 2 high school level classes.  

Why is this important?  Because one of the absolute biggest college hacks we are going to try and leverage in high school is known as dual enrollment.  

You can read more details about dual enrollment here.

By knocking out 2 high school classes even before starting will allow him to take 2 extra dual enrollment classes between his Junior and Senior years of high school.

Note - As of now, our son will plan to start taking dual enrollment classes starting next year (as a Junior) at the local Community College.  More to come on this in future posts.

3 - Received Teacher Recommendation to Take AP World History

Another important college hack we are planning to use are AP Classes.  Our school district offers 10 different AP classes to high school students.  

At the end of the year, the students take the AP exam and depending on the grade (and the University or College they attend) they could eventually receive college credit.

Our school district allows Freshmen to take 1 AP course and requires a teacher recommendation for middle school instructors in order to enroll.  They have these rules in place because of the high workload required to take an AP course.

During his 8th grade year, our son received recommendation from his social studies teach to take AP World History (which he did - see below).  Without the recommendation, he probably would not have been able to take that course.

He didn’t do anything special to get the recommendation other than the basics of being a good student and getting his assignments finished.

Summary of How We Started Hacking College as a High School Freshman

Now that we have established a baseline of college hacking before high school, let’s look at what steps we took during our son’s Freshman year.

We expect things to really start ramping up in his Sophomore and especially his Junior year for college hacking.  His Freshman year was really only the beginning of this journey.

1 -  Focus on Taking AP and Honors Courses

The school district our son attends operates on a weighted grade point average, so I can’t speak for everyone on this.

According to the school counselors, the goal is to push kids to take a rigorous course load in high school.  Colleges and Universities seem to put more focus on taking a harder course load than the actual grade point average.

This makes sense given the weighted grade point scale.

So in order to help our son get into college, we agreed to let him take 1 AP course and as many Honors courses as he could as a Freshmen.  

Most classes offered by his high school include the standard class such as Math I and then an Honors equivalent, such as Math I Honors.  And in some cases, they also offer the AP version of the course.

During his Freshman year, our son took AP World History (only one was allowed as a Freshman) as well as several Honors classes.  The remaining few (like Physical Education) were regular classes.

Overall, this allowed him to push his high school weighted GPA up to around 4.25.

A few things we learned in the process of selecting classes to take in high school -

  • ​​Honors Courses are the Sweet Spot - The sweet spot for classes in our high school seem to be the Honors courses.  They are weighted higher than a general class, look better on a transcript to colleges, and aren’t anywhere near the level and work of an AP course.
  • ​​AP Courses are Hard - The workload and level of AP World History was insane for a high school Freshmen.  It made sense that our school district only allowed Freshmen to take 1 AP course. Looking at the workload, it reminded my wife and I of a college class … which in some ways is good.
  • ​​Not all AP Courses are Created Equal - It seems to be a bit of a balancing act on which AP course to select.  As a Freshmen, we only had two options (AP World History & AP Environmental Science). But now as a Sophomore, there are several more options.  Looking a different colleges and universities in our area, we quickly realized some AP courses are favored over others (actually it is the AP Exam grades) - like AP Chemistry seems to be valued more than AP Psychology.

Once we learned the value of these high school classes, we decided to only allow our son to take 1 AP course his Sophomore year and as many Honors courses as possible.  That seems to be the biggest value from what we can tell.

2 - Pass all Classes

This is obvious, but taking a heavy workload is a waste if you can’t pass the class.

While we don’t want to​ stress about grades, it’s also important to make sure your child is passing the classes they take.  This is one reason why we only had our son sign up for 1 AP course his Sophomore year (he is allowed to take 2).

We want to put him in a position to do the best that he can and not completely overload him with coursework.

I noted earlier that our son got a 4.25 weighted grade point average as a Freshmen.  Basically, he got A grades in all of his Honors and general classes and a B in his AP class.  So far as a Sophomore this pattern is still holding up.

This isn’t to brag at all on our kid.  He’s a good student that get his work done and studies.  His he a genius? Nope. He just puts in the work he needs to do and doesn’t take anything to the extreme.

3 - Take AP World History Exam

Last May (2019), our son took the AP World History exam as part of his class.  The nice thing about this is that it could potentially earn him future College credit.

Depending on the score and College or University you attend, taking an AP Exam can help waive future courses.  That could be a huge money saver down the road.

Our son ended up getting a 3 score on his AP World History Exam.  Looking at most public in-state University’s in our area, a “3” grade on the AP World History exam would earn your student college credit.

To provide some context - some private institutions in our state require a “4” or even a “5” (the top score you can get).  Anything lower than a “3” grade will not earn any college credit.

Will this AP Exam help us save money on college tuition?  That will depend on several factors down the line, but it is another small tool we possibly could use one day to hack college.

Ultimately, taking the AP World History class actually helped him learn time management.  And also gave him some insight on what a College course may look like one day. So there were some good skills picked up by taking this class.

4 - Start Working, Volunteering, and Joining Clubs

The final college hacking checklist item we wanted to complete our son’s Freshmen year of high school involved extracurricular activities.

Most notably volunteering and working.

This is where we all came up a bit short, although our son sure did seem to stay busy.  First of … our son did have a summer job the last couple of years. He has made enough money to put towards buying his first car sometime after he turns 16.

Note - Car buying and insurance will be a whole other group of posts here on our experience … once we have something to share.

Unfortunately, our son didn’t sign up for any volunteer opportunities, which we are hoping he does his Sophomore year and behind.  We will just need to make it a priority at some point if we want to be serious.

In addition to working a summer job, during the school year our son participated in the following sports at the high school -

  • ​​Cross Country​
  • ​Indoor Track
  • ​​Track

He also joined the fishing club at school.

So overall, not too bad but we still want to focus on some of the non-academic parts of college hacking in the future.

College Hacking Checklist

So what’s next on our college hacking checklist?

To summarize, we have a college hacking checklist (as we like to call it) of the following items for our oldest son -

  • 2 separate 529 plans with over $90,000 assets (to use between 3 children)
  • A weighted high school GPA of 4.25 (through his Freshman year)
  • 3 Honors courses and 1 AP course taken out of 8 classes (note - 1 AP counts as 2 classes)
  • Got a “3” on the AP World History Exam
  • Participated in sports each season during school and worked a summer job

The focus his Sophomore year will include several new college hacking checklist items -

  • ​​Take AP Chemistry class and Exam
  • ​Take 4 additional Honors classes
  • ​​Participate in school sports ​and work a summer job
  • ​Research ​schools and majors (still a lot of time for this)
  • ​Prepare for Dual Enrollment ​as a Junior
  • ​​Take the PSAT and Pre-ACT
  • Volunteer
  • Start applying and researching for college scholarships

We still don’t have all the answers on how to pay for college for our son … not to mention all 3 of our kids.  And as I mentioned earlier, we are not 100% convinced that all 3 will go to college … although I think the chances are good.

So far I think we have a good start on having several different tools available to us to help our son hack his way through college with little to no student loan debt.

As we learn new things and uncover possible ways to hack college, our goal is to continue documenting our progress.  That way we can possibly use it for our other two children as long as pass it along to the readers of The Money Sprout!

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