AP and Dual Credit: Making Sense of College Choices During High School

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Mike Hobolth is the Associate Principal at Lapeer Community Schools, Zemmer Campus and has been an MASSP member since 2002.

High schools around the nation have been adding actual college experiences to their college-readiness programs. For years schools have been offering Advanced Placement courses as endgame opportunities in their curricular departments; it has become pretty normal for high schools to evidence expansion of course offerings, student recruitment and exam taking in AP over the past ten years or so. But lately there is a trend, supported by many state departments of education, to offer students more, and more expanded, opportunities to attend actual college classes while in high school. Some of these opportunities have been very creative, including using high school teachers as university faculty, creating early colleges for underclassmen, and other interesting partnerships between high schools and higher education. These opportunities are important, not only for supporting students' financial standing as they approach college, but also for providing a safe place to experience college-level work.

Sometimes, because of AP's pervasiveness, it is easy to forget that AP is not simply an advanced option; it is college. While it's true that students need to pass those pesky exams in order to qualify for credit, we need to be reminded that the courses and the exams are actually higher education's idea (through the College Board's filter) of the core of what should be offered in introductory college courses. This is valuable to remember when students are looking at dual credit, which, while being college, can also seem more like college than AP does.

I'm going to put aside the question of which of these options, AP or dual credit, is better for schools. It's an important consideration when you think about curriculum alignment and accountability issues; dual credit gives high schools little or no control over either of these, since higher education is running the curricular/instructional show. There are a number of school finance issues that also play into a district's decision on what and how to offer postsecondary options in high school. But my interest here concerns the effects of these options on students, the people most affected by their participation.

SO: With all of the choices available for high school students to begin collegiate classes and collegiate learning early, it is often asked: Which is more advantageous, AP or dual enrollment?

And no surprise: There is no single answer for that question. Each student considering these options has a story, an interest, a talent bank, a home life, a school with parameters. Those variables, and others, affect and limit wise choices. I'm offering a few ideas to consider when comparing options:

Program: What courses are available for students, either via AP or early colleges or "college on campus"? Do those available courses fit students' current schedules and future plans? Students should view the available programs alongside their own "program" to see what the fit involves.

Endgame: As I put it to students who ask questions about AP and dual credit, Where do you want to end up? If you can identify the four-year institution from which you want to graduate, it's much easier to design your game plan backward. Students need to see what their ultimate higher-education destination will best support, in terms of admissibility and transfer credit.

Track record: It is fair for a student to ask its school what the success rate is, in AP and in dual credit, for school graduates in those program. If students historically do not get great results in the AP Calculus exams at their school and the opportunity exists to take the course in a university setting that will transfer, dual credit might be the wiser choice. On the other hand, if students are comparing a highly successful AP Calculus course/exam track record with community college credit, the decision making apparatus might tip to AP.

Transferability: This is a large issue that schools sometimes don't cover with students very well. The two biggest hitters in transferability are AP and community colleges. They are big hitters because transferring credit is their job. High school students need to understand that transferring credit is messy even with the best options; you limit your risk by working with agencies who offer credit that is easily transferable and easily portable. As an example, AP Studio Art, which transfers at many universities, might be a smarter enrollment than articulated credit that is accepted at one or few art schools.

Rigor: This consideration often gets left out of planning, and it shouldn't. Planning for college should include a primary goal of finishing the degree on time. This is better for everyone involved (student, family, university, even the state's economy). One component of that plan should be to prepare academically for the rigor of college. While there are certainly local differences, I remain stuck on the notion that, overall, AP gives students the best entry into the cognitive demands of college. If a student is committed to dual enrollment or early college, I would still suggest that that student look for ways to include AP in her schedule.

Admissibility: Credit is only one factor in choosing AP or dual credit; admission is another. It is a mistake to believe that, since a selective university is skimpy with credit for a qualifying AP exam score, dual credit is a smarter option. Credit is only a value if you are admitted. If a student fails to take any of the AP offerings at her high school and opts for dual credit instead, she may find out the hard way that the university of her choice does, in fact, want to see AP in her transcript and on their exam roster.

Cost: The expense of college is frightening right now; its capacity to cripple a person financially for a long time has been well documented. Consequently, the opportunity to come out of an early college program with a free associate's degree upon high school graduation is a powerful incentive and potentially a great beginning for college. And so is accumulating AP credit. It is important for a student to consider what costs he will need to cover out of pocket for all of the options he is considering. The AP exams cost $92 apiece; for students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, they are much less expensive ($5 per exam in Michigan for the past two years, a huge value). A student should weigh this, and his capacity to score successfully on the exams, against the costs he may have to pay in dual credit situations (is the school paying for all tuition, fees and books?).

High schools are busy creating great opportunities for students to get real experience and real credit in college work and vocational licensure. To students, my summarized advice is this: Tailor your choices for postsecondary credit to your opportunities and to your situation, present and future. Then get yourself all in; make your choice work. Best wishes in your choices and your efforts.