When you’re researching colleges, you usually find that there are three main things that drive many of their admission decisions: GPA, test scores, and rigor. The test scores are really the only things that are standardized here because they come from standardized test, like the SAT or ACT. The quality of high schools varies a lot though, so there’s some subjective components involved for them to analyze a student’s GPA. When the college analyzes a student’s GPA in the context of their test scores, they can get a better picture of how accomplished that student actually is – well, maybe. That’s where the third component of rigor comes in.
Someone could be a very good test taker and simply breeze through their classes taking, only the minimum on-level classes required to graduate and profile very well at some of the best colleges in the country. By avoiding rigor, they protect their GPA and over represent their true abilities to perform at the college level. Colleges know that. And that’s why they want to see that a student has challenged himself or herself AND earned a high GPA. This is why rigor is such an important component in a student’s profile.
Rigor can be met in several ways including honors classes, AP classes, and dual enrollment classes. In cases where honors and AP classes are offered, it’s usually recommended for students to take as many classes as they can while still maintaining a good GPA. It doesn’t do any good to bury someone with rigor and have their GPA suffer because the colleges are usually more forgiving in the area of having less rigor as long as the GPA is still very high. But, if you feel your student’s able to handle the workload and maintain a strong GPA, you may be considering AP classes or dual enrollment classes right now. If so, here are a few things you need to know.
Which is better? As a College Planning Specialist, people ask me all the time, “Which is better, AP classes or dual enrollment?” The answer is neither one is actually better or worse but there are some distinct differences you need to know about each one. With an AP class, the workload and the rate at which teachers cover material is definitely faster than in regular on-level courses or in honors classes. They’re trying to simulate college-level work at the high school level, but unless a student earns a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP exam at the end of the year, all of that work may not count toward college credit.
Dual enrollment classes, on the other hand, are college classes and therefore count as college credit. There is no separate final exam a student has to pass after the class in order to get that credit. They simply need to complete the coursework just like any other class and those efforts get them high school credit and college credit at the same time.
Another important distinction is AP classes count as half credits for each semester while dual enrollment classes count as a full credit for each semester. In other words, if you take an AP class, you get one year’s worth of credit. If you were to take dual enrollment classes instead, you’d actually get a full year’s credit each semester, which means that you would get two years’ worth of academic credit in just one year’s time.
Those extra credits can add up quickly and it’s not uncommon for me to see students who have taken this approach enter college with 15 to 20 hours of college credit already on their transcript. That’s basically a semester on the house, which frees up opportunities later for study abroad, internships, and co-ops. And, if you have a merit scholarship that covers eight semesters like most colleges offer, you can use that “free semester” to take on a minor or a dual degree and still graduate in four years. It’s possible to still do this with AP credits if you score well on the tests too, but it’s much harder and much less certain.
Another important distinction with dual enrollment versus AP is the cost involved with each. College tuition is expensive, so using strategies like AP exams and dual enrollment classes to reduce as much of that cost upfront as possible is usually a wise move. College Board overseas the AP program and charges a fee for their AP exams. If your student is a high achiever taking five or six AP classes each year, those fees can really add up.
In Georgia where we are, the state pays for the cost of these dual enrollment classes. That only leaves some fees and books to cover from a parent’s standpoint and it represents a great deal if you’re trying to shave off some cost from your college bill. In some places the school district has to pay for the cost of the dual enrollment program and in other places that cost is shared between the parents and the students. The Education Commission of the States has published a report that shows what each state’s policy is. If you’re not familiar with it in your state or have questions for a friend who may live in another state, check out their findings here.
Why has nobody ever told me this? I found that most counselors have a tendency to recommend AP classes over dual enrollment classes. But from a parent’s perspective, especially in a state like Georgia where the state will pay for the tuition cost, it seems like a no-brainer to choose dual enrollment over AP. If your state covers those costs, or something similar, you may feel the same way. And if that’s the case then, why is it that more counselors are not recommending dual enrollment over AP?
You have to follow the dollars to get the true picture.
College Board makes a lot of money from the AP exams fees I mentioned earlier. They and the colleges know that most students don’t score 3’s, 4’s, or 5’s on the AP exams, so those colleges can then charge tuition on those same subjects again when students come to college.
In many states, high school counselors and administrators know that they get better marks and qualify for more federal funding based on the number of AP classes they host, so it’s easy to see why nobody wants to rock the boat with College Board or their AP exams there. There’s a financial incentive for them to stay in their lane, but what about for you?
If your kids can affordably take college classes that also give them high school credit, especially if someone else will share that cost with you, what’s the harm in that?
You have to know the angle your advisor is taking when giving you advice because ultimately it comes down to whose best interest you really have in mind when you’re helping someone build their children’s college plans. In fact, if you’re not sure you’re even working with the right kind of advisor, you can find out for free by requesting the free report “How To Know If You’re Working With The Right Kind Of College Planner.” I think it will really help you understand the different roles the different advisors play and give you the insights you need to make sure that your needs and expectations are being met in the right way with the right people.
You can’t pass the buck Now, let’s go back to the counselors again. Naturally, not all schools, and certainly not all counselors, are jaded in their approach to advising students. In our area we have some very good schools and some very good counselors who do what’s right for their students as best they can, but, like you, I’ve heard some real horror stories that really make me cringe.
But here’s what you have to remember: the responsibility of building a proper college plan falls on you, not your counselor. They have a lot of other things they’re doing in addition to trying to point you in the right direction for college. You should give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they have your best interest at heart, but always verify that their recommendations are moving you and your students toward your goals. Be courageous when needed to step up and override the recommendations when it’s in your best interest too. And remember to protect GPA over rigor if you come to the crossroads.
Choose wisely It’s impossible for me or anyone else to make a definitive statement that AP or dual enrollment is better than the other for any individual student. They both have their benefits and burdens and they both have their place in a well-structured college plan. Take the time to find out what opportunities and obstacles are in place in your state, in your district, and in your high school. You may find that in some smaller public schools and at many private schools there is a very limited number of AP classes even available. In those cases, if dual enrollment is available, it’s clearly the better option.
Colleges have a way of knowing how many offerings each high school has, but that will not give you a pass if your local options are limited. Consider dual enrollment options online if no colleges are located near you. This challenge is just like almost everything else. There’s always a way if someone’s motivated to find it.
If your students are younger, maybe even just entering high school right now, it’s not too early to begin making their plans for future honors, AP, and dual enrollment classes. Start gathering information about timelines and requirements now and communicate with your student the options that are available. Making these choices may not be as important as ultimately making your final college decision, but these decisions will certainly have an impact when that time comes. Prepare yourself now and choose wisely!