Taking Credit

AP Classes often offer a head start on college

Ap College Credit

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When many of today’s parents went to school, high schools offered just a handful of advanced placement (AP) classes, perhaps in biology, calculus, chemistry and English—mostly senior year. Today’s high school students can take AP classes starting freshman year in all of the above subjects and others including art, psychology, foreign languages, statistics, environmental science and history.

When students take AP classes, many parents see visions of their children acing the AP exams with 5s, racking up lots of college credit, graduating from college early and saving the family thousands of dollars. But that’s not always the case. Here’s a primer on AP classes.

Your Mileage May Vary

The AP tests are scored 1–5, with 5 being the highest score. Some colleges will take a 3 for course credit while others require a 4 or 5, notes Peter Mertz, headmaster of Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News. “It varies from school to school,” Mertz says. Sometimes a 3 or 4 on an AP exam will give a student credit for one three-hour course while a 5 will get him credit for two three-hour courses.

Some colleges work to make it easier. For example, Wesleyan University in Connecticut now offers a three year bachelor’s degree geared toward students who enter the school with AP credits. Ohio’s public colleges and universities also are assembling plans that allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years, with help from AP credits.

My son entered N.C. State University in the fall of 2011 with credits in U.S. history, European history, political science, world history, English, chemistry, physics, calculus, environmental science and psychology—40–45 hours and enough to enter as a second semester sophomore. If he had attended Virginia Tech, he also would have started as a spring semester sophomore. In one college math class, his AP credit was contingent on making a good grade in the next class.

Other colleges limit the number of AP credits—no matter how many the student has. For example, my son was told Duke University would credit him for just six hours worth of classes—no matter how many 5s he had on AP tests.

“Colleges are not keen on having their students graduate too quickly,” Mertz says. “It’s not necessarily a cynical money issue. They believe they offer an enriching experience and why shortcut that based on AP credits?”

Graduating early also may depend on the student’s major and how heavy of a class load the student takes in college. My son plans to graduate in four years, but he’s in an engineering program that takes most students five years—so I guess he’s still earned a year. He also is able to take fewer credit hours.

One of the big benefits in my son’s world: he was able to get football and basketball tickets based on being an upperclassman his first year.

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