how old do you have to be to go to college

Online college courses offer a convenient way to earn an education from any location. These online classes are diverse, flexible and ideal for those who already have busy schedules. They have long been favorite choices for students with full-time jobs and those with families. Lately, however, younger people have found that taking classes online while still in high school may give them an early boost to a college career.

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Reasons to Take an Internet-Based Course

At What Age Can You Start Taking Online College Courses?

Younger people might have any number of reasons to want to take an online college course. Any of these reasons are viable.

Early High School Completion

In the United States, a typical high school graduate is usually 17 or 18 years old. In some instances, a student may complete their education early. They may have chosen to leave to school to earn a GED. They might have doubled their course load in order to finish requirements in three years instead of four. Home schooled students often find themselves graduating as young as 15 or 16. These students might not be ready for an in-seat college experience. Online learning is a good alternative.

Supplementary Learning

Students who need an additional challenge might opt for online learning from a college or university. They may have a free period during high school that would serve as a good time to learn more about history or philosophy. They might have some extra time on evenings or weekends that they want to devote to literature. Supplementing a high school education is an excellent reason to take an online course.

Earning Transfer Credits

High schools students who are thinking ahead may see their years in university shortened if they can earn college credit online. Something as simple as taking one online course per semester beginning during the sophomore year is equal to about one semester’s worth of university learning. This may be particularly attractive to students who plan on lengthy fields of study, like law or medicine.

Getting a Taste of College

An online class gives a high school student the chance to understand what is expected in college. The student may want to see how much heavier the workload is or how learning differs from high school. Taking a class online cannot replicate the experience of living on campus but it can introduce young students to the high standards of higher learning.

Boosting a Career

Younger students have just as many career aspirations as their older counterparts. They may be looking for ways to enhance their future careers or gain part-time employment. Showing potential employers that a college course has been completed even when the student is 16 or younger is a great way for a younger person to get their foot in the door.

Boosting Artistic Skills

College courses in art, creative writing, music and even acting can be found online. A student may seek one of these classes as a means to develop or improve a specific skill. In these instances, the courses may not be about earning credit but about the experience itself.

Help for Young Parents

Teens who have children at a young age may see an online course as a way to add to their skills while also trying to work and raise a family. It is very difficult for a teen mom to take college courses in person. Enrolling online is an excellent way for a teen mom to get her education while also caring for her young child.

Just for Fun

Sometimes, a student takes a class because it is in an interesting area. A student might want to learn more about public speaking criminal investigation. A specific college course can be exactly what the student needs to inform their interests or hobbies.

Legal Issues With Young Learners

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 is a key piece of legislature surrounding this. The act was put into place to combat ageism in the workplace, schools and other public institutions. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 “prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

This means that any state college, community college or any institution that is not entirely privately funded must adhere to the Act. Since Federal Law does specify a minimum college age, this can be a very slippery slope for admissions administrators. By letter of law no such institution can deny a student enrollment solely because of their age. There are, however, other ways to make the argument. The student would still have to meet other requirements, such as passing entrance exams, having a GED or HS diploma, and having the required GPA.

Some colleges also have a “best-fit” clause built into their programs wherein students must meet with enrollment advisers or submit a paper explaining why they would be a good match for the program. There are no laws governing the requirements for this practice, and the institution reserves the right to reject any applicant on the basis that they are not a “good fit” for the program. The institution would have to be taken to court to determine if they are being discriminatory such a case.

The Minimum Age for Online Courses

At What Age Can You Start Taking Online College Courses?

Many students, especially those who have graduated from high school early due to course acceleration or home school programs, wonder if they can jump right into their college education. Is there a minimum age to begin taking online college courses? The answer is mixed and is often determined by each individual institution.

Some institutions may have age requirements clearly listed under their admissions requirements. Others are less focused on age and more focused on completion of a high school degree or GED. In this instance, a person who has graduated very young should be accepted without worry.

Even those schools that have minimum age requirements might make an exception. If a young student can prove they are as prepared as any adult learner, then the age-based entrance requirements may be waived.

Other Exceptions

Within any college or university there is some room for exceptions. Many colleges have a clause in their admissions requirements that allow administrators to waive certain admissions requirements on a case-by-case basis. What are common things a student will have to prove to be granted a waiver to the age requirements?

First, the student will need to show they are academically prepared for the course. They should meet all other academic requirements or prerequisites for the course. Second, administrators will be looking for maturity in the student. If the student can prove that they will interact in an online discussion environment at an appropriate maturity level, then their age may be overlooked. The student will probably be asked to write one or more papers or samples of what their discussion content might look like. Finally, administrators will be looking for independence. The administrator does not want parental hand-holding to occur. College level work is designed as independent work. This is what separates it from grade-level education.

Differences Between Online and Campus Classrooms

There have been cases where very young students have been denied college entry because of their age. A 13-year-old girl was denied college enrollment despite the fact that she had passed the entrance exam and completed a high school diploma via legal home schooling. The college administrators cited fears for the girl’s safety on a campus designed for adults. There were also concerns about her ability to interact well face-to-face with college-aged students.

Concerns like these are well founded, but do they apply to an online learning environment? If the students does not have to go to campus or interact directly with peers, does it matter how old they are? Online college courses do still often specify an age requirement for their admissions. The average age is 15 years, but, again, it can vary by institution.

Dual Enrollment Online

One of the most popular ways for young students to take college courses is through dual enrollment. Dual enrollment is a method of taking courses for two institutions at once. In most cases, this refers to high school students who earn both high school and college credit for taking a specific course.

Dual enrollment is generally agreed upon by an institution and the high school. Not all high schools allow dual enrollment courses. Some require the students to learn in-seat. Most will offer online classes as an option.

Taking dual enrollment courses gives a student the ability to earn college credits, understand how college courses work and practice the enhanced skills needed for their days at university. It can be the ideal situation for many younger people.

The downside to dual enrollment is that a student doesn’t have an extreme amount of flexibility. They may be limited only to those classes that are allowed by their high school. It can also be expensive unless that student lives in an area where dual enrollment is covered by the state government.

Non-Credit Online Courses

A good way to take an online course without having to worry about age requirements is to take a class as a non-credit seeking student. Many online courses are available for students who simply wish to learn but aren’t pursuing a certificate, degree or diploma. These types of online courses rarely require a high school diploma or GED because they are not promising credit.

There is a big downside from going this route. Though students receive the education and experience from taking an online course without credit will not have their hours transferred when they permanently enroll in a college or university. They may have to re-take a similar course to get the credit they have already technically earned.

Some of these types of courses offer a certification that can be purchased once the class is complete. Though the certification is unlikely to carry enough weight with it to lead to college credit, it can be a bonus when applying for jobs, to universities or for scholarships.

The upside to non-credit courses is that they may be offered at no cost to the student. Unless the student wants to receive a certificate, they gain the knowledge and exposure to learning in an online environment.

Paying for Online Courses as a Young Student

At What Age Can You Start Taking Online College Courses?

The method of paying for the course depends on the institution and the method of study. Students who attend an online class as a regularly enrolled student may be eligible for scholarships and financial aid regardless of their age. Parents can still complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, even if their child is far younger than the traditional student. These students can also apply for institutional aid if it is offered. Most of these forms of aid are only offered to students who have already completed a GED or high school diploma.

Students who are still in high school might still qualify for discounting if they have families that qualify based on need. Students are unlikely to qualify for merit-based scholarships if they are still in high school.

Student loans are rarely advised to young people who are still in high school. In fact, most will not qualify for these types of loans until they are enrolled in college full-time. At that point, students can also apply for federal work study programs.

Making a Final Decision

A younger learner might think enrolling in an online course is a fun and exciting way to explore a more grown-up world. They could find that taking classes online is exactly what they need. Conversely, they might learn very quickly that they aren’t ready for university-level coursework. The only way to learn is to try it out. A young student might choose to only enroll in one or two classes from the outset in case they discover that they aren’t yet ready and need to put their online learning plan on hold for the time-being.

Joining an online course at a young age is a very good idea for students who are willing to put in the time and effort. There are many rewards to taking college classes online before turning 18 years old. Though not every school will make these classes available, there are always the options for having any standing rules waived. Simply put, there may be age requirements for online college learning, but they are not always set in stone.


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