Two outcomes of a student’s admissions campaign indicate success; first, being accepted by targeted colleges, and second, being able to afford them. Earning high grades on Advanced Placement (AP) exams can foster both results. This is why the AP program is viewed as a boon to high school students aspiring to attend a top college.

But there is a dark side to the AP program. It is often criticized for its negative impact on college education in general. One of the more scathing quotes from an expert in higher education is that of John Tierney of Boston College. In an article in Atlantic Magazine, he said, “Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes. To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement courses, one of the great frauds perpetrated on American high-school students.

The truth about the AP program lies somewhere between the optimistic and pessimistic views noted above. Both perspectives are valid: AP courses can help applicants gain admission to colleges and often save on tuition as well; AP courses are difficult and are an imperfect way to gain knowledge about a college subject.

An Overview of the AP Program

The AP program is targeted toward outstanding students ready for college-level work. Over time, it has become part of the high school experience of students planning to attend college. To raise their competitive profile, a student is expected to take AP exams and score high scores on them. The benefits of doing so are twofold; first, the student is more likely to be admitted, and second, the student receives credit toward their high school graduation and may also earn college credit. If they do, the student reduces their cost of tuition.

The College Board, the non-profit corporation that administers the SAT, also operates the AP program. The Board is co-owned by over 6,000 colleges, secondary schools, school districts, and nonprofit organizations. It develops and maintains strict guidelines for the teaching of AP courses and it administers the exams. The program offers 39 courses in a variety of disciplines, including art, science, math, and history. Nearly 23,000 high schools representing 80% of secondary students offer at least one AP course, The average high school offers eight AP courses. One-third of high schoolers take an AP exam each year.

A high school may teach none, some, or all of the AP courses. The College Board allows any student to take an exam regardless of participation in the AP course. This affords home-schooled students and those in schools that don’t offer desired AP courses an opportunity to benefit from the program.

AP courses are free as part of a high school’s curriculum. However, the fee to sit for an exam is $98 in the U.S and Canada. Students with limited financial resources may request a full or partial waiver of the fee. A student can send their AP grades for free to one college and may order scores sent to additional colleges for $15 each. Reports include results from all AP exams that the student has taken, although he or she may choose to withhold any exam scores that they don’t want colleges to see.

AP exams are taken in May and scores are reported in July. Exam are graded on a five-point scale, as follows:

5: Extremely well qualified

4: Very well qualified

3: Qualified

2: Possibly qualified

1: No recommendation (this is not a failing grade)

Nearly 1.2 million students in the class of 2023 took over 4 million AP exams. 35% of 2023 public high school graduates took at least one AP exam during high school, and 22% of the graduating class scored a 3 or higher on at least one exam.

The AP Program: The Good News

Below is a summary of the advantages of the AP program.

A student can:

  1. Raise GPA by means of the grading system high schools use for AP courses.
  1. Reduce the cost of college tuition by skipping introductory courses
  1. Save on tuition and other college costs money by graduating sooner.
  1. Study a favorite subject in greater depth.
  1. Prepare for college-level work.
  1. Impress admissions offices with the strength of the high school curriculum.
  1. Free up credits to take more advanced courses later in college.

Two of these advantages are considered in greater depth below:

  1. Raise GPA via the AP exam grading system: A student’s GPA is their most important academic credential. However, the significance of a student’s GPA depends on the high school curriculum. The rigor of curricula vary widely, inhibiting a college’s ability to compare applicants fairly. An AP course curriculum in any given subject is the same for all high school students. This allows colleges to compare applicants who have taken the same exam on a level playing field, which is invaluable in the SAT/ACT-optional era.
  1. Save on tuition: Undergraduates typically need 120 credit hours to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Since AP exams can substitute for college credits at many schools, students can begin college with credits and may skip certain introductory courses, allowing them to save on tuition.

The AP Program: The Bad News

Criticisms of the AP program center on the fact that the College Board, a huge corporation, has an outsized impact on the U.S. educational system. Below are defects in the AP program according to many educators:

  1. AP courses are rarely the equivalent of the college-level courses that they are intended to emulate because they cover complex subjects too superficially.
  1. The monetary argument for the AP program — that it reduces the tuition a student must pay — is weak. Colleges granting credit for high AP scores is becoming less common every year. Students should check with a college’s website to understand its AP policy.  In 2024, 86% of the top 153 colleges in the country restrict  or deny AP credits, nullifying hundreds of millions in potential college tuition savings.

There are two types of institutions whose AP policies should be scrutinized more carefully than others. They are:

  1. Elite Undergraduate Institutions: Many of these schools don’t grant AP credit. Most that do grant them only to students with a 5 on the exam.
  1. Medical Schools: Applicants cannot use AP credits to fulfill requirements for medical school regardless of the AP policy of the undergraduate institution. Applicants may not discover this until applying to medical schools. They then need to make up course work by taking introductory classes intended for underclassmen.
  1. AP students may be allowed to opt out of the introductory class in a college department, but they often regret having done so when they realize that the AP course didn’t adequately prepare them for advanced courses in that department.
  1. Many students who take AP courses are unqualified. This has caused growing failure rates on AP courses and exams. Unqualified students drag down AP courses for the those who are qualified. Unqualified students who take AP courses become highly stressed due to the intensity of the work. This can result in reduced time spent on other classes, which can lower a student’s GPA and harm admissibility.
  1. The AP brand is powerful. It convinces many students who score well on an exam or two that they are prime college material when they actually aren’t. This leads to disappointing and demoralizing outcomes during admission season.
  1. Despite rapid growth in AP enrollment, many minority students are unable to take courses because their high schools cannot afford to offer them. As a result, these students have another disadvantage in college admissions.
  1. AP courses impose a substantial opportunity cost on non-AP students in high schools due to the sacrifices that must be made to offer them. AP courses have small class sizes and the best teachers. Schools are often forced to increase the size of their non-AP classes and transfer their strongest teachers to the AP program. The opportunity costs are more consequential in low-income districts.
  1. The best teachers and students are forced to adopt a rigid AP curriculum. This causes stagnation or, as John Tierney puts it, “… a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry”.
  1. AP classes can be less beneficial than classes based on the expertise of the teacher. Pressure to produce high scores on AP exams forces teachers to spend more time on test-prep than on teaching. Many students focus on AP exam requirements rather than on learning the subject.

College AP Policies Differ Significantly

 Colleges find AP exams to be a valuable tool in assessing the readiness of applicants to learn at the college level. In order to encourage students to take AP courses, some colleges honor the intent of Advanced Placement by granting college credit for high exam scores. However, many do not.

AP credit is awarded by colleges, not by the College Board. Students should learn the AP policies of the colleges to which they plan to apply. This will enable them to determine if they can save money by earning college credits in high school and, if so, how many.

Families often assume that every college will value AP credits in the same way but AP policies vary significantly. They are more likely to be generous at public institutions, whereas private colleges tend to be more restrictive. In a publication titled, “Diminishing Credit: How Colleges and Universities Restrict the Use of Advanced Placement”, the authors state that, “The prosaic reason for the increasing denial of student’s AP credits is boosting tuition revenue. It’s no secret that U.S. colleges and universities depend increasingly on tuition to keep their doors open.”

Some institutions consider a score of 3, 4, or 5 on an AP exam as sufficient for college credit, some consider only scores of 4 or 5 to be sufficient, while others will give credit only for a score of 5. Certain colleges will grant credit but won’t exempt the student from taking the introductory course. For example, if a student scores sufficiently high on the AP American History exam, they might receive three credits toward their bachelor’s degree but must still take American History 101, the college’s introductory course.

Some departments in a college may grant AP credits while others do not. The number of credits granted may also differ. For example, a student who scores a 5 on the AP Computer Science exam may receive four credits from the College of Arts and Sciences but two from the School of Engineering.

At certain colleges, a student might be required to receive a sufficiently high score on more than one AP exam in order to receive credit and an exemption for only one college course. For instance, to be able to skip an introductory course on economics, a student may need to score high on both the AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics exams.

Outlook for the AP Program

Since there are many insiders who are not enamored of the AP program, one may conclude that it might be phased out, as was the universal requirement for SAT/ACT scores. Thus far, this does not appear to be the case.

Seven elite private schools in the Washington DC area dropped the AP program several years ago, stating, “The truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.”

This move by prestigious prep schools failed to start a trend because it’s difficult for a high school to drop the AP program. Taking AP courses has become the de facto standard for high-achieving students. These students know that their peers will be taking several AP courses and that college admissions officers value success in AP over non-AP courses. Applicants without an impressive array of AP exam scores on their academic record may be at a disadvantage when applying to top colleges. This explains why dropping the AP program is problematic for high schools, especially those in affluent areas.

There’s another factor militating in favor of the AP status quo. The College Board generated over $500 million in AP exam revenue in 2023. Since revenue from SAT exams has declined in recent years due to test-optional policies, the AP program is now the Board’s largest source of revenue. Board management will do whatever they can to protect it.