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Learning Curves
November 30, 2017

Going Beyond the Scores

MHT Partners  | Education Investment Bank

Approximately 2.7 million high school students took 4.9 million Advanced Placement (“AP”) exams this past May(1). Millions are investing hundreds of hours into classes and paying $93 per AP exam in the hope of 1) gaining college-level credit without paying the university price, 2) bolstering college admissions applications with high scores, and 3) boosting high school GPAs with added AP weighting. With 86% of the top 153 colleges and universities restricting AP credit use(2) and college admissions officers saying ‘it depends’ for impact on acceptance, millions of students and parents are left wondering if the extra preparation is truly worth the effort.

AP courses allow students to take college-level courses in a high school class setting. By taking a nationally standardized end-of-course exam that is scored on a 5-point scale (1 = “no recommendation” to 5 = “extremely qualified”(1)), students who achieve scores >=3 may be able to count these test scores as completed coursework at their future college or university, potentially saving thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

One significant issue with this plan is that the majority of colleges and universities restrict use of AP credits, in the form of capping the amount of AP credits or denying the use of AP credits towards a student’s degree progress(2). Despite that the transferability of AP credits to college varies widely, the benefits of AP coursework go beyond earning credits early; rigorous high school curriculum prepares students for success in college.

Several studies demonstrate that adding academic rigor to high school students’ regular curriculum is positively correlated to college success(3).  A recent study by The College Board found that overall, AP students who scored >=3 on at least one AP Exam, compared to those who scored lower or do not participate, were more likely to succeed in college based on several factors. Students with AP scores >=3, are estimated to achieve the following compared to their nonparticipant peers* (3):

  • Four-year graduation rates that are 11.1%-11.5% higher
  • First year college GPA that is 0.15 (on a 4.00 scale) higher
  • Probability of four-year persistence (consistent college enrollment) is 5.3% – 7.8% higher

The benefit is twofold. First, the applicability of the AP coursework gives students an advantage with the subjects taught in college. Second, the challenge of AP exam preparation (in comparison with standard high school coursework) prepares students for the more challenging academic environment presented in college.

* Nonparticipants includes students enrolled in neither the AP Program nor a dual enrollment program.

Differences in Predicted Probabilities of Four-Year Graduation(3)

So how do students get the best of both worlds – college credit and the tools for success?

  1. Research: Students can research their potential colleges and universities to see what forms of pre-college credits are accepted.
  2. Prioritize: Studies show that students who score >=3 on their AP exams have higher likelihood of success than those who score below. Scores of >=3 have a higher potential of being transferrable college credits. In addition, admissions officers may pay more attention to AP exams related to a student’s desired major.
  3. Personalize: Students can personalize their learning by addressing academic strengths and weaknesses early in preparation. Hiring an educational counselor is one way for students to access personalized learning and optimize college preparation.
  4. Seek Alternatives: There are other options to the AP program, such as dual enrollment programs, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, and high school honors-level classes that can add rigor to standard high school academics.

Success in college requires a delicate balance between skill, effort, and time management. Balancing a typical high school course load with the AP program is no different. The jump-start to college subjects and life lessons learned from academic consistency in earlier stages of education pay dividends that go beyond good AP scores, but ultimately into the college classroom and across the graduation stage.


(1) “2.7 Million Students Expected to Take Nearly 5 Million AP Exams in May.” The College Board, 16  Apr. 2017, www.collegeboard.org/releases/2017/students-take-ap-exams-in-may.

(2) Grant, Kelli B. “Study up: Getting AP Credit for College Isn’t Easy.” CNBC, CNBC, 4 May 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/05/04/study-up-scoring-ap-credit-for-college-isnt-easy.html.

(3) Wyatt, Jeffrey N., et al. A Comparison of the College Outcomes of AP and Dual Enrollment Students. The College Board, 2015, A Comparison of the College Outcomes of AP and Dual Enrollment Students.

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