College & Workforce Readiness

Can AP Credits Save Students Time and Money in College?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 15, 2016 3 min read
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Here it comes again: the argument that Advanced Placement credits can help students save money by helping them get through college more quickly. This week brings a new round of think-tank opinionating on the idea (more about that in a second).

But is it true?

Let’s go right to the source: the College Board, which administers the AP program. Jason Manoharan, the College Board’s vice president of AP strategy and program management, told a gathering of education writers earlier this year that AP’s key value is in providing challenging courses to high school students. By and large, he said, AP students don’t graduate from college early, so “it’s false to cast it as a money-saving thing.”

AP wasn’t always cast as a money-saving thing. It’s been more about offering high school students a challenge—and yes, perhaps some credits—than about speeding their journey through college. Only more recently, as college costs and student debt have soared, has AP been portrayed as a way to minimize hefty tuition costs.

The idea of AP as money-saver is explored in a new paper by Paul Weinstein, Jr., of the Progressive Policy Institute. He studied the AP-acceptance policies of the top colleges and universities, found them too restrictive, and argues that institutions should be required to grant credit for scores of 3 or higher as a way of helping students manage college costs by finishing in three years. (His numbers differ a bit from the ones we reported in a 2014 story about how colleges restrict AP credit, but the basic idea is same.)

In a response to Weinstein, Nate Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute argues that most institutions accept at least some AP credits, so forcing the rest to do so won’t make a huge impact, and could actually give an unfair edge to privileged students.

But that leaves the dangling question of whether getting AP credits really speeds students’ time-to-degree. And research hasn’t universally backed up the idea.

A 2010 collection of studies about AP, for instance, includes one from Texas that concluded that AP students graduated no sooner than those who didn’t take AP, unless they had accrued enough credits to enter college as sophomores.

There’s a solid base of research about the benefits of scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams, including a greater likelihood of getting good grades in college.

But the College Board’s own research has shown that the benefits don’t really extend to speeding through college. Students who score 3 or higher are more likely to finish college on time (in four years instead of taking longer) than students who don’t. Even those who take an exam—regardless of how they score—are more likely to finish in four years. That’s great, of course, but it’s not exactly a picture of AP students zipping through college in three years, as some might like to imagine.

College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg said in an email that AP students “have the potential to save time and money through placement and credit-granting policies. AP gives students the opportunity, in some cases, to graduate college early—but our research indicates that many AP students don’t actually choose to graduate early.” Often, students use the credit they earn for AP as a chance to take other courses.

It’s nothing new to question whether AP can live up to the hype that some heap onto it. A decade ago, scholars were warning the public not to inflate AP’s benefits as President George W. Bush was asking the program to play a big role in addressing the nation’s weakness in math and science. (Lots of folks are hyping dual-enrollment programs as a way students can speed through college, too, even though many students run into trouble with that dream when their colleges won’t accept their credits.)

Photo: Peyton Stearns, left, and Maggie Squyer work together during an Advanced Placement Environmental Science Class at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, S.D. Jay Pickthorn/The Argus Leader via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.