At Minnetonka High School, students take advanced courses to bolster their chances of getting into a selective college or because they hope to get credit for a college class. Others sign up because of a must-have teacher or to be with high-achieving students.
These may be the reasons that students are increasingly taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, according to Phil Trout, a school counselor at the suburban Minneapolis school, but parents increasingly hope the practice will save them money, too. “There is an antsiness to get going, and the undercurrent is largely financial,” he said.
But colleges don’t always see the trend the same way. And state lawmakers are entering the debate by passing laws requiring public colleges and universities to set uniform policies for recognizing AP, IB, and dual-enrollment courses that students take in high school.
“Colleges and universities are reluctant to give away the farm because in doing so, you give up valuable tuition revenues,” said Mr. Trout, who also is the president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Some top selective institutions, where high-achieving students can enter with years of college-level coursework from high school, are becoming stricter in the awarding of credit. Not facing the same volume of incoming credits, public institutions generally are more accepting. The patchwork of increasingly fluid policies, often varying within departments in a college, leaves many students and parents uncertain about how advanced coursework will pay off and pushing for greater transparency.
For example, according to a 2013 survey by the College Board of 1,380 institutions with a total of 39,000 policies, 68 percent of policies give AP credit for a score of 3 or better on a scale of 1 to 5; another 30 percent for a score of 4; and 2 percent require a score of 5. Eight institutions, including the California Institute of Technology, refuse to use AP for credit or placement, according to the board, the New York City-based organization that runs that program.
Advantage Is Uncertain
According to Michelle A. Cooper, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan research center in Washington, the lack of consistency “can be potentially confusing to students and is an area ripe for policy.”
State legislatures are responding in a variety of ways:
• Since 1991, more than a dozen states, for example, have passed laws requiring public institutions to accept AP exam scores for credit, often setting the minimum threshold at a score of 3.
• While California has long given students college credit for a variety of work done in high school, its practices were formalized in 2010 with a state policy.
• Twenty-two states have adopted policies guaranteeing that dual-enrollment credits be accepted by colleges, up from 15 in 2008. With dual credit, high school students are taking college-level courses either at a nearby college campus or in their own high school with credentialed instructors.
• The Kentucky legislature this year asked the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education to form a work group to review dual enrollment and recommend a possible legislative response to constituent calls for more consistency around such programs, including in the transferring and acceptance of credits across all higher education institutions.
When students sign up for advanced courses in high school, they don’t know where they will matriculate, so it’s hard to anticipate how their work will apply in college. For some students, such coursework is seen as a must in the competitive admissions process; others hope accelerated courses will lead to accelerated time to completion of a degree.
Last year, research from the National Student Clearinghouse, a Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit, found that students who entered higher education with college-level experience through dual enrollment had higher six-year graduation rates. The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board reported that high school students in the study who took dual-enrollment courses completed college degrees in 4.6 years, compared with five years for their peers who did not take college courses in high school.
Likewise, a study released by the College Board in January found that AP exam-takers were more likely than their demographically and academically matched peers to graduate on time in four years.
“We do see cost savings as an incredible value and benefit of AP,” said Trevor Packer, the senior vice president of AP and instruction at the College Board. “But the cost savings may come from earning your degree in four years, rather than 4-and-a-half or five.”
Earlier research by Kristin Klopfenstein, the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, reported that with the exception of students who take a very large number of AP courses, the probability that an AP student will graduate from college in less than four years or exactly four years is indistinguishable from that of a similar student who does not take AP.
The College Board does not “trumpet” the message that AP equals early graduation, but the experience can allow students to take more advanced coursework, pursue a double major, add a minor, or have the flexibility to study abroad, Mr. Packer said.
When Hailey E. Clark graduated from high school in Bogart, Ga., last spring, she had completed 17 AP courses and chose to attend the University of Georgia, in part because it accepted her credits while Ivy League schools would not. She entered as a junior with 78 credits, but plans to attend all four years and go into medicine. Her tuition is paid in full through Georgia’s Hope Scholarship program, and Ms. Clark has a double major in biochemistry/molecular biology and economics.
“While it’s tempting to go for two years and get out of medical school before I’m 30, I think college is more about the extracurricular, and I’m hesitant to give that up. Medical schools look a lot at résumés,” said Ms. Clark.
Jeff Fuller, the director of student recruitment at the University of Houston and the current president of NACAC, said higher education faculty members often want students to be educated in the professors’ own instructional models and sometimes encourage students to retake college-level courses they had in high school, especially those in their majors.
“There is more [that students] want to get out of the college experience, and the rush lessens once they are here,” Mr. Fuller said.
The International Baccalaureate, with U.S. regional offices in Bethesda, Md., and programs in 830 U.S. high schools, doesn’t exist for the purpose of getting students college credit, said Drew Deutsch, the IB regional director for the Americas, although many colleges do award it. The IB experience, with its emphasis on critical thinking, is about better preparing students for college work and setting them apart in admissions, he said.
“For a student who is experiencing the educational and social benefits of college life,” said Mr. Deutsch, “who would want to depart early if they can financially afford it?”
Policies around the granting of college credit for AP coursework have fluctuated more as the total number of students taking AP exams has doubled over the past decade, growing 846,000 in 2005 to 1.5 million today. Each year, 6 percent of AP credit policies are modified, balancing between allowing for more credit or less, according to the College Board.
In general, Mr. Packer said, those institutions that are open to accepting credit are trying to attract students, while the more-restrictive ones want students to have most of their academic experience on campus.
Last year, Dartmouth College announced it would no longer award credit for AP, saying it wanted students to take courses with its faculty on campus to the greatest extent possible. The policy change has not hurt application volume, and it will be formally reviewed in three years. Dartmouth still considers APin admissions and for placement.
Michael V. Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that while AP and IB exams have long been recognized, higher education more recently has welcomed dual enrollment as new research has countered early concerns about quality.
“The more general trend is to recognize and award college credit,” he said. “As high school graduating class numbers flatten, campuses want to be attractive to students coming in with advanced standing.”
About half the AP students surveyed this year by the College Board said they’d be less likely to apply to a college or university that didn’t give credit for AP exam scores. About 70 percent of respondents said that earning college credit while in high school was the main reason to take an AP course. Other factors were to “increase my chances of college admission” (62 percent) and to build skills needed in college (54 percent).
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen get some credit for college-level work done in high school, said Sally H. Lindsley, a senior associate director in undergraduate admissions there.
In the past 10 years requirements for such credit at the university have inched upward, with many departments now requiring an AP exam score of 4 or 5 to receive credit, instead of a 3, as in the past. The threshold is a “data-driven decision” based on tracking how well students do in subsequent courses, Ms. Lindsley said.
It falls on the shoulders of students to figure out colleges’ credit-granting policies, said Ms. Klopfenstein of the University of Northern Colorado.
“I don’t think schools are trying not to be transparent. There just is no clearinghouse or central place,” she said. “Even within a university, you have to go to every department. That’s the real challenge—portability.”
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as College Policies Mixed on AP, IB, Dual Classes