What is the "AP Advantage"?

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Advanced Placement is considered to be a valuable asset by most schools that are involved in it. Offering the courses, recruiting students into the courses, recruiting students to take the exams – these are considered important. Even scholarly detractors consider AP to be one of the most significant brand names in American education (Sadler & Tai, 2006). But to what extent does AP offer unique benefits that contribute to student success in college? This has been a matter of discussion among researchers for several years. Some studies that show that AP students out-achieve non-AP students do not control enough to rule out the possibility that other concurrent factors may also take credit for those students' success.

The idea of an "AP advantage" (an phrase first found in the literature in a study by Santoli, 2002) has changed among researchers over time. In the early days of the program, the advantage was thought to extend to students who took the courses; there was even an apparent advantage for students who attended schools that featured AP, whether or not those students actually enrolled in the courses or took the exams (Willingham & Morris, 1986). Beginning in the 1990s, when AP was beginning to assert itself as a more inclusive feature of school programming and as the AP population began to change, researchers began to find that merely taking AP courses did not confer an advantage in college persistence above that of those who did not take AP (Tai, Sadler & Loehr, 2005; Klopfenstein & Thomas, 2009). Studies since 2000 have consistently found that students who received an AP advantage in college were those who received qualifying scores in the exams (Geiser & Santileces, 2004).

Two things here. First, this puts a significant and identifiable burden on those of us who support AP for our kids. While we may believe that AP is good for our students' futures, we need to come to terms with the probability that many of our AP students will succeed in college for reasons outside AP, such as their families' backgrounds and support, academic talent and non-cognitive factors such as persistence (or "grit"). Just having AP courses, or just getting kids exposure to more rigorous courses, is not, in the aggregate, a telling factor. If we are truly committed to preparing students for college, we need to put them on the best possible platform to succeed in AP, both in the courses and in the exams. This means that we need to train AP teachers well for the curriculum and instruction demanded by their courses. It means that our AP courses need to be aligned to the course descriptions and the national exams. And it means that our kids need to have access to the courses that will get them ready for AP and college-level work.

Second, while researchers' aggregated findings support the idea that AP tends to favor exam qualifiers, this does not mean that an individual student should stay away from AP if they're not sure of their qualification chances. Certainly there are students who do not qualify on the AP exam and yet still have been impacted by the course or the teacher or the rigor. We need to understand how the curve for the AP advantage works in order to offer smarter access, not simply to increase or reduce access without thoughtful preparation of students and teachers.

AP does indeed offers a great advantage, but there are conditions for this advantage that we should acknowledge. Understanding this should move schools to take control of the whole AP process, from exam success backward, to the fidelity of the courses to the preparing courses students take, and back to their philosophy of college readiness itself. Schools that do this will discover for themselves a powerful investment in the college success of their students.


  • Geiser, S. & Santelices, V. (2004). The role of Advanced Placement and honors courses in college admissions. University of California at Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education.
  • Klopfenstein, K. & Thomas, M. K. (2009). The link between Advanced Placement experience and college success. Southern Economic Journal, 75(3), 873–891.
  • Santoli, S. P. (2002). Is there an Advanced Placement advantage? American Secondary Education, 30, 3, 23-35.
  • Tai, R., Sadler, P., & Loehr, J. (2005). Factors influencing success in introductory college chemistry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(9), 987-1012.
  • Willingham, W. W. & Morris, M. (1986). Four years later: A longitudinal study of Advanced Placement students in college. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.