AP or Dual Credit: Which Approach is Best for High Schoolers?

For high school students facing up to the financial toll a college education can take on a family, amassing as many college credits as possible prior to enrolling makes a lot of sense. As a result, high schoolers in Missouri are enrolling in Advanced Placement courses and taking AP exams to earn college credit by the thousands.

Yet the numbers aren't high enough, according to many education experts around the state. Even though earning college credits can not only provide substantial financial savings but also serve as a good preparation of tougher undergraduate curriculum, enrollment rates across the state have stalled. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri schools rank near the bottom when it comes to the percentage of students taking advantage of AP courses.

However, colleges and universities around the state have a much more optimistic view on things because while schools are struggling to get their students interested in AP classes, enrollment in so-called dual credit courses is on the rise. And according to higher education experts, they might provide more benefits to both students and their eventual college destinations than College Board-created AP exams.

The two approaches — dual credit and AP — offer competing schools of thought on helping high school students earn college credits. AP prepares students to pass an exam to prove their mastery of college-level curriculum. Dual credit in effect enrolls students in college courses while they are still in high school, allowing them to earn credit for both.

Caught in the middle are students and parents who wonder which approach produces the best payoff.

Experts say both approaches can work. When done the right way, they say, many students are able to lop off an entire year or more of college before they even get there.

Choosing which one is the best approach is up to the individual student, According to Nicole Buesse who is a counselor at Fort Zumwalt North High School. Buesse herself is agnostic. She thinks both approaches could be of great benefit to kids who take advantage of them.

Both approaches have their downsides. Some colleges don't accept AP course credit even when the student earns the best possible grade, with many colleges only granting credit when the student scores a 3 or above.

At the same time, the number of colleges that take the dual credit transcripts into consideration is still rather small. And worst of all, information about each school's policy on accepting college credit earned in high school is not well publicized, leading to confusion and disappointment among students.

Advocates say offering college-level courses of any kind in high school pays off, even if not every credit is honored. They argue that schools raise the bar for students and teachers by offering more rigorous courses.

Some, however, warn that pushing students into the courses can backfire. For example, more than half of the AP teachers surveyed a few years ago by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said that too many students were in over their heads.

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