What is the value of earning college credit from AP?

College-level courses taken while in high school have never been more popular. Chief among these sources is Advanced Placement (AP), whose five million exams were taken by almost three million students in 2018. AP’s popularity has skyrocketed for a host of reasons: parents seeking a more rigorous curriculum for their kids; principals wanting to drive their school up on competitive national rankings; and students hoping to polish their college applications, propel themselves through the ivy-covered gates, and—if all goes well—skip some vast, lecture-style intro courses when they get there. It’s also widely believed (including by some 58 percent of U.S. teachers) that AP’s expansion owes something to students wanting to save money or graduate early with the help of AP credits.

Yet little is known about how many students do actually earn college credit from taking AP exams, and how this actually benefits them. A new analysis from Vanderbilt University assistant professor Brent J. Evans takes a timely look at who gains college credit via AP and what positive outcomes are associated with that credit.

Evans examined data from a nationally representative survey, following 14,830 students who started college in 2004 and tracking them for six years. He looked at their demographics and a laundry list of their subsequent outcomes: whether they attended a four-year institution; the selectivity of their college; first-year college GPA; six-year bachelor’s degree attainment; total non-AP credits earned; whether they double-majored; whether they majored in a STEM subject; the number of months and terms needed to complete their degree; if they earned advanced laboratory science or math credits; and whether they enrolled in graduate school. He also looked at certain labor elements, such as whether a student was employed and for how many hours during their first year of college, as well as their cumulative loan debt. And he controlled for prior academic achievement and demographic differences, as well as differences in student sorting across higher education institutions in colleges’ policies for granting credit on the basis of AP.

One surprising finding is that just 7.6 percent of first year college students enter with a least one credit derived from AP—this in contrast with the (today) nearly one-fourth of high school graduates the College Board says have acquired at least one AP score of 3 or better. Those who started with such credits averaged ten credit hours applied to a 120-hour degree program and reduced their cumulative loan debt by about $1,000 each. They also used their AP credits to help reduce time to degree (especially among lower-income students who qualified for Pell Grants), pursue STEM majors, and to take more advanced math courses rather than increasing their leisure time or hours of paid work. Evans also finds strong positive effects from earning AP credit on academic outcomes during college, including increased first-year GPAs and increased likelihood of attaining a bachelor’s degree within six years, with the strongest outcomes associated with a shorter time to degree completion and increased likelihood of double-majoring. The more credits earned, the larger the effects on most outcomes.

The study stands out for the sheer scale of outcomes it examines. Few previous AP studies have come close, especially with a sample of this size. Also noteworthy is that it examined actual credits earned, not potential credits, or predictive credits, as is most common in prior research.

Still, the study has many of the same limitations as other AP research, beginning with selection effects: AP students are more likely to be better students, which entails unobservable student characteristics (such as intrinsic motivation, prior academic ability, etc.) that may affect their college outcomes more than earning credit from AP. Ultimately, the study demonstrates that earning credit from AP can potentially benefit those who do, but such students are likely to be high achievers anyway. The subject demands greater attention and analysis, as much has changed over the past fourteen years in how AP credits are granted; even while more elite universities are limiting credit-granting to scores of 5 (or are eliminating this practice altogether), some twenty-eight states now have mandatory (system-wide or statewide) credit-in-return for scores of 3 or above.

Nevertheless, Evans’s study adds another important layer to our understanding of how students earn credit from AP in college and the potential benefits for kids who manage to do so.

SOURCE: Brent J. Evans, “How College Students Use Advanced Placement Credit,” American Educational Research Journal (November 2018).

Andrew Scanlan
Andrew Scanlan is a Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.