How to count AP credits? Policies vary even within the same college

Legislatures call for more transparency

Two students may score the same on an Advanced Placement (AP) exam, and may attend the same public university system—but they may not receive the same credit, Caralee Adams reports for Education Week.

High school students are taking the exams at increasing rates, either to boost their appeal to colleges, working alongside other academic-minded students, or to earn college credit. Since 2005, the numbers of students taking the exams has now jumped to 1.5 million. 

Though private institutions may be strict about awarding credit, public colleges are generally more accepting—but hodgepodge policies that even vary within one school's departments makes calculating the credit value difficult.

AP and transfer credit procedures and policies

Of 39,000 policies across 1,380 institutions, 68% give credit for an AP score of 3 or better (on a scale of 1 to 5), 30% award it for 4 or better, 2% require a perfect 5, and 8 do not give credit for any at all, according to a 2013 College Board survey.

In an attempt to make the process more transparent, Adams reports that state legislatures have responded in multiple ways, including: 

  • More than 12 states require public colleges to accept AP exam scores—usually a minimum of 3—for credit; and
  • Up from 15 in 2008, 22 states now guarantee dual-enrollment credits will be accepted by colleges.

Student success benefits

Research has found students who take dual-enrollment courses in high school typically find better success at the college level. Such students complete college in 4.6 years on average, compared with their peers' five years, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. Furthermore, research from National Student Clearinghouse shows students who take dual-enrollment also had higher six-year graduation rates.

AP credits tend to translate to long-term success. Even when accounting for academic level and demographics, AP exam-takers are more likely to graduate in four-years, according to a College Board study.

However, prior research indicated that unless students take a very high number of AP classes, their likeliness to graduate college in four or fewer years is the same as non-AP students'.

"We do see cost savings as an incredible value and benefit," says Trevor Packer, senior VP of AP and instruction at College Board, though they do not "trumpet" that.

More often, collecting credits in high school allows students to double major, minor, or study abroad, Packer tells Education Week.

Sometimes colleges suggest students retake courses they completed in high school, says Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at University of Houston, to learn their professors' models.

Changing policies

About 6% of AP credit policies change each year, and Packer says, and usually those accepting credit are doing so in an attempt to attract students.

"As high school graduating class numbers flatten, campuses want to be attractive to students coming in with advanced standing," says Michael Reilly, executive director of American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Approximately half of AP students report they would be less likely to apply to a school that does not award credit for AP exams, according to a 2014 College Board survey. About 70% said the main reason to take such a course is to earn credit, though they also did so to increase acceptance chances and build college skills (Adams, Education Week, 12/9).

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