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AP vs Dual-Enrollment Classes

Updated: May 24

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Should I Take AP or Dual Enrollment Classes?

When high school students face the decision of enrolling in Advanced Placement (AP) classes or dual enrollment courses, it's important to understand the unique features, benefits, and potential drawbacks of each option. In this article we’ll explore both programs, drawing upon research studies and expert opinions to assist students and parents in making informed choices.

Understanding AP Classes

AP classes are overseen by the College Board, the same body that administers the SATs. AP classes are designed to offer high school students college-level coursework in a variety of subjects. These courses culminate in standardized AP exams, with scores ranging from 1 to 5. Colleges often grant credit for scores of 3 or above, though this varies by institution and course.

According to the College Board’s report on AP Program Results for the Class of 2022, 34.6% of U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2022 took at least one AP Exam, which is an increase from the 30.1% of the class of 2012. Additionally, 21.6% of the 2022 graduates scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP Exam, up from 18.2% in 2012.

What Are the Advantages of AP Classes?

AP courses follow a standardized curriculum across the U.S. and are recognized by a majority of colleges nationwide, ensuring a consistent level of academic rigor​​. These courses emulate the intensity of college coursework​​, so taking AP classes can not only prepare students for the demands of college coursework but enhance college applications, allowing the student to demonstrate readiness for college-level work. Additionally, AP classes cover a wide range of subjects, allowing students to explore different academic interests. According to the College Board site, subject matters span anything from Art, to Mathematics, to Languages and Culture. 

Most importantly, scoring well on AP exams can earn college credit, potentially reducing college tuition costs and time to degree completion. Many colleges across the U.S. recognize AP test scores for granting college credit and advanced placement to students. However, each college has its own criteria for accepting these scores. Typically, colleges accept scores of 3 or higher on AP exams, but some institutions may require a 4 or 5 for credit or placement in certain subjects. It's important to check the specific AP credit and placement policies of the colleges you are interested in, as these policies vary from one institution to another.

What Are the Downsides to AP Classes?

The benefits and disadvantages of AP Classes are often two sides of the same coin. While most colleges accept AP credits, not all of them do, or they may not count towards specific degree requirements​​​​. Additionally, according to college counseling firm AdmissionSight, with AP Classes comes the high pressure to perform well, especially since success in AP classes often hinges on a single end-of-course exam. Furthermore, the competitive nature of these classes can create a high-stress environment with constant comparison among peers. The rigorous coursework can be overwhelming for some students, leading to a heavy workload and potential burnout. Balancing AP classes with other academic and non-academic responsibilities can be challenging, impacting students' overall well-being and negatively affecting a student’s GPA if they don’t perform well. Last but not least, AP courses follow a standardized curriculum, which might not align with every student's learning style or interests.

Understanding Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment is an educational program that allows high school students to enroll in actual college courses and earn both high school and college credits simultaneously. This program is designed to provide students with a more challenging academic experience and a head start on their college education. Dual enrollment courses are typically offered through partnerships with local colleges and can be taken at the high school, the college campus, or online, depending on the program's structure.

According to this article posted by the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 34% of U.S. high school students take college courses through dual enrollment programs. This percentage reflects a growing trend in the participation of high school students in these programs. The growth of dual enrollment programs at the state level has been significant, with some states like Indiana seeing a dramatic increase in participation over recent years.

What Are the Advantages of Dual Enrollment?

Dual enrollment provides a more authentic college experience and often includes a broader range of course offerings than AP classes. Dual enrollment programs serve as a critical bridge for students transitioning from high school to college, offering them a head start in their higher education journey. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the exposure to college-level coursework not only bolsters students’ academic skills but also provides insights into potential career paths, fostering a more seamless transition into post-secondary education and the workforce​​.

Additionally, students who participate in dual enrollment programs are more inclined to enroll in college post-high school. According to a report by the Community College Research Center, a majority of students who attended college after earning dual enrollment credit in high school earned a degree or at least some certificate within five years. A study by the American Educational Research Association further showed that students in dual enrollment were nine whole percentage points more likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree than their fellow students who were not.

Dual enrollment classes, like AP Classes, also introduce students to the rigors and expectations of college-level study, aiding in the development of crucial academic skills and study habits. Both AP and Dual enrollment classes can be beneficial for aspiring college athletes, who know their college schedules will be full and thus want to get an academic head start on their peers. Dual enrollment provides a more authentic college experience and often includes a broader range of course offerings than AP classes, which follow a standardized curriculum, and there is no reliance on a single exam for credit as in the case of AP classes. Participation in dual enrollment is often viewed favorably by college admissions officers, as it demonstrates a student's ability to handle challenging coursework and sets them apart from their peers, potentially giving them a competitive edge in the college admissions process​​. According to a College Confidential article by Sally Rubenstone, a former Smith College admissions counselor, “Certainly [dual enrollment classes] are always viewed favorably by admission officials who feel that students who elect college classes are up for a challenge.”

Last but not least, one of the most tangible advantages of dual enrollment is the cost savings it offers. According to Saving for College, a company that provides information on college savings plans, since dual enrollment courses are generally less expensive than traditional college classes - and sometimes even offered at no cost - students can significantly reduce their overall higher education expenses​​.

What Are the Downsides to Dual Enrollment?

A major concern with dual enrollment credits is their transferability to colleges and universities. AP credits are generally more uniformly accepted by colleges compared to dual enrollment credits. This is due to the standardized nature of AP courses and exams, which are recognized nationally. Dual enrollment credits, while also accepted by many colleges, can be subject to more variability in acceptance depending on the college's policies and the accreditation of the dual enrollment program. Therefore, while both AP and dual enrollment credits are valued, AP credits often have wider acceptance across different colleges and universities. This necessitates thorough research and planning by students to ensure their credits will be recognized and beneficial for their intended educational path

Additionally, dual enrollment classes may conflict with high school schedules, particularly if the college courses are not offered within the high school premises. This can lead to difficulties in balancing academic and extracurricular commitments, which are also vital components of a well-rounded college application​. Students engaged in dual enrollment might find themselves missing out on traditional high school experiences, including social events, sports, and other extracurricular activities. In this article posted on College Confidential, Sonja Montiel, who worked in college admissions for 20 years before founding the College Confidence Academy in Orange County, CA is quoted:  "Pushing students too quickly into a college-level curriculum and prematurely being surrounded by a more mature learning community (aka older students) can jeopardize a student's academic confidence and motivation, and ultimately, overall self-esteem. It is only advantageous for students who are intellectually and emotionally ready to take on a higher demand of course work.”

As with AP classes, the college courses offered in dual enrollment programs are inherently challenging and carry the same weight as they would for regular college students. This means that the grades achieved in these courses become a part of the student's permanent academic record, necessitating a high level of commitment and readiness for rigorous academic work. On top of that, courses that do not directly contribute to a student's intended field of study or career path might be less beneficial and could even raise questions about the academic rigor of their senior year courses.

dual enrollment class

Weighing AP Classes vs Dual Enrollment

A study by the College Board compared the college outcomes of AP and dual enrollment students. It found that AP students with at least one score of 3 or higher on an AP Exam generally outperformed in terms of college persistence and graduation. However, for college enrollment, dual enrollment students affiliated with four-year colleges showed higher rates​​. Another study by the Regional Educational Laboratory Program suggested that dual enrollment generally provides a higher expected benefit for students who attend private colleges or universities (including public institutions out of state) and perform around national norms on the AP exam. Conversely, AP favors high schools where students either face inexpensive costs for study at higher education institutions or perform exceptionally well on the AP exam​.

Making the Choice Between AP Classes and Dual Enrollment

In conclusion, both AP and dual enrollment have their unique advantages and can significantly contribute to a student's college readiness and academic growth. Ultimately, the decision should align with the student’s academic goals, learning preferences, and future college plans. For example, if you prefer a more structured curriculum and standardized testing, or if you plan to study at a college where your expected costs are already lower, AP might be more suitable. If you're interested in a real college experience early on, a wider range of course options, or are planning to attend a private college and are looking to save on the cost, dual enrollment could be a better fit​​​​.

It's also important to consider the colleges you're aiming to apply to and their policies on accepting AP and dual enrollment credits. Understanding the nuances of each program, along with considering personal and academic circumstances, will help students make the best choice for their educational journey. Consulting with a school counselor can provide personalized guidance based on your specific situation​​​​.

ICL Academy is the transformative private online school for grades 5-12 that connects students’ passions with personalized academics, using the best in educational technology and philosophy to meet the demands of today’s generation. You can learn more about us here.

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