Advanced Placement vs. Dual Enrollment

Can we please dispense with the fiction that Advanced Placement courses in any way resemble college courses? Because that’s what it is—a fiction, carefully crafted by the College Board to promote its AP franchise to the detriment of other, better options.

Specifically, I’m talking about dual enrollment, a program in many states that allows qualified high-school seniors (and in some cases, juniors) to take actual college courses. Typically those courses count for both high-school and college credit, and are directly transferable into the state-university system (and often beyond). In many states, like mine, tuition and fees for dual-enrollment students are minimal.

I speak as someone who has had a great deal of experience with both AP and DE. As a college administrator and professor, I’ve dealt with hundreds of students who had, or were seeking, AP credit. I’ve also taught hundreds (probably well over 1,000) dual-enrollment students.

Moreover, as a parent, I have four children who have all taken at least one AP course (the youngest is a ninth-grader currently taking AP “HUG,” or human geography), and I am now on my third dual-enrollment student. My two older kids each earned a full year of college credit while dually enrolled, which served them well, as my daughter went on to graduate from a private liberal-arts college in three years and my son (fingers crossed) appears poised to do the same.

I might add that this has also served our family well, considering the price tag for a year at a private liberal-arts college.

Anecdotally speaking, all three of my kids have found dual enrollment to be far superior as an educational experience to taking AP courses in high school. It’s not that AP courses are bad. As high-school courses go, they’re well above average because they usually have the best teachers and the best students. But the point is, they’re high-school classes, not college classes.

As someone who has taught primarily first-year college students for nearly three decades, I can tell you that one of the biggest adjustments they have to make academically is to the relative paucity of graded assignments. In high school they’re used to getting three or four grades per week. This means that they (and their parents) can easily track their progress from week to week, and the fact that they might end the semester with 45 or 50 grades means that a few low ones won’t matter much.

College is a completely different story. In my composition course, students have exactly seven grades: six essays plus a class-participation grade. In a history, political-science, or psychology course, they might have even fewer—two or three tests plus maybe a term paper. That takes some getting used to.

And what do AP teachers typically do in order to make their classes more “rigorous” and “collegiate”? They give the students even more assignments than a regular high-school class, which translates into even more grades. Obviously, rather than making their classes more college-like, those teachers are going in the opposite direction.

And much of the work they assign, quite frankly, isn’t terribly demanding. A lot of it is just busy work, much like the work students would have in a non-AP class, except more of it. I’ll never forget the time our family borrowed a friend’s mountain cabin for a long weekend, during the kids’ fall break from school, only to have my daughter spend the entire three days holed up in the house to work on a poster for one of her AP classes. A poster! Unfortunately, in too many AP classes, that’s what passes for “rigor.”

Here’s a more recent anecdote. The other day I came home from work to find my 15-year-old in the den, doing his homework while watching Dr. Who on Netflix.

“Son,” I said, “we’ve talked about this. You need to turn the TV off until you’re done with your homework.”

“But Dad,” he protested. “It’s just AP HUG. It’s not like I have to think.”

Contrast that with the day I came home to find my daughter working on an essay at our dining-room table. This was early in her senior year of high school, when she had just begun taking classes as a dual-enrollment student at the college where I teach. She was obviously frustrated and struggling, so I asked her what was wrong.

“I’m supposed to write an essay for political science about which has more power, the House or the Senate,” she told me.

“OK,” I said, “so what’s the problem? You’re a good writer.”

Whereupon she exploded, “But I don’t know which has more power!”

I was able to explain to her, calmly, that she wasn’t supposed to know; she was supposed to think. “Go back over your notes,” I told her. “Reread the chapter in the book. Decide which one you think has more power, then tell why, giving your reasons. That’s what your professor is looking for.”

“Oh,” she said, clearly taken aback. “Nobody’s ever asked me what I thought before.”

This was a young woman who had already taken several AP courses and made A’s in all of them. And yet that experience had not prepared her for the rigor of college work—a true rigor based on intellectual engagement, not simply on time spent slogging away at “projects.”

For students still in high school, I strongly recommend AP classes. As high-school classes go, they’re about as good as it gets. But those who have the opportunity to take actual college classes while still enrolled in high school should not allow themselves to be dissuaded by teachers and administrators essentially hawking the College Board’s products.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Robert S. Donovan.]

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