This is a contributed post by Karen Dentler, author of Go to Class: How to Succeed at College, a gift book for college-bound students.
Advanced Placement (AP) classes are college-level courses students can take in high school. The AP system is governed by College Board, a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Their goal is to prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success—including the SAT, the Advanced Placement Program, and BigFuture (scholarship opportunities).
Why are AP classes so controversial right now?
I don’t dispute that Advanced Placement (AP) classes have value in college admissions. Colleges certainly want to see students succeed in challenging high school classes, including honors, AP, IB programs, or dual-credit, and the most selective colleges and programs want to see numerous AP classes with high AP exam scores.
The conventional wisdom is that students who take many AP classes gain significant benefits at college. The College Board touts that colleges typically offer college credit for AP exam scores of three, four, and five. As a result, families often believe large quantities of AP credits will save money and help students graduate early.
While it is true that AP credits provide some advantages during college, students don’t need a lot of AP credits to reap these rewards. Additionally, the benefits of AP college credits differ from what conventional wisdom espouses.
Are AP classes worth it?
After serving as an Assistant Dean at a large state university honors program for ten years and working with college students for more than 20 years, I believe that AP credits at college conform to the economics law of diminishing returns.
In other words, after a certain point, more APs don’t bring any additional benefits.
The benefits of AP credits are present from just one high school course and, in my experience, generally reach the peak of utility at around five APs classes. AP credits often become useless after five APs (approximately 15 credits at most colleges).
Benefits of AP Credits at College
What are some benefits of AP classes?
- AP credits may let students register for their spring courses earlier than other first-year students. This could be a significant benefit at large schools as seats in popular courses fill quickly.
- AP credits often let students skip crowded entry-level courses.
- AP credits provide a cushion, enabling students to drop a class or take fewer credits during a difficult semester without worrying about making up credits later. This benefit doesn’t save money in a conventional way, but it definitely avoids unexpected additional costs.
- AP credits help students take a lighter course load while studying abroad so they have extra time to explore. (My daughter definitely took advantage of this benefit!)
- AP credits sometimes fulfill requirements giving students a bit more flexibility when selecting their courses.
Graduating early: Understanding the Numbers
Let’s get real about graduating early for a minute.
A small percentage of students, even honors students, graduate early, and when students do graduate early, it is typically only one semester early. At most schools, one semester is equal to approximately five AP high school courses.
This happens because only a fraction of college requirements are available as APs, and when APs do transfer to college, they complete low-level requirements. Additionally, many colleges are now requiring basic foundational classes related to their majors be taken at the college-level.
As a result, students still must take almost all of their courses at college to complete their degrees.
Although requirements vary from school to school, looking at the numbers from one school is helpful to illustrate this point.
At the state university where I worked, students need 120 credits to graduate. Classes are typically three or four credits. Therefore, 120 credits are equal to approximately 30-40 classes.
So, upon first blush, students bringing in 35 or 40 AP credits look awesome. Yet those same students still need to complete their majors, minors, graduate school prerequisites, college general education requirements, and more. Students must take most of these classes at college because APs typically only count for the lowest level of those requirements.
Additionally, many students want to explore several majors before making a decision. As students pursue these goals, they accumulate more and more credits. So, in the end, students who bring in 30+ AP credits typically just end up graduating with 140 or 150 credits instead of the usual 120. These AP overachievers receive the same degree and take basically the same number of courses during college as students who bring in significantly fewer AP credits.
APs provide value, but perhaps not in the way you think
Hopefully, understanding the distinction between the utility of AP classes in the admission process and their value during college will help families remove some of the stress surrounding APs in high school.
Advancement placement classes can help a student prepare for college and demonstrate they are a dedicated student, but families should not bank on these to completely offset the financial cost or guarantee admissions to a specific college.
The entire admissions process is only a small part of a student’s college experience.
The important work starts when your student arrives at college, and learning and growing can happen at every school.
Let’s change the narrative by talking about success at college instead of college admissions.
Who is with me?
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