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College Courses or AP Classes: Which Benefit High School Students More?

by Monica Fuglei AP classes or college courses: Which is better for high school students?

To meet the challenges — and increasing costs — of higher education, high school students are doing whatever they can to enter college fully prepared for the experience. Some students seek to begin their freshman year with credits already acquired through advanced placement (AP) courses or dual enrollment in college classes. Deciding between the two can be difficult, and parents and students often ask teachers and administrators which option is better.

Choosing a college course or AP class: Which one is superior?

The debate is heated, with thousands of teachers, colleges, and students vested in the answer. In December of 2004,Washington Post writer Jay Matthews’s Why Colleges Think They Are Better Than AP argued that AP courses were superior. This elicited a variety of responses from both sides of the discussion.

Several months later, Matthews wrote a follow-up piece called Round 2: College Courses vs AP Tests, which highlighted advantages and disadvantages to each choice from educators Luther Spoehr and Jon Reider, who have spent a great deal of time in both AP and college-level classrooms.  

AP class content is more consistent, possibly more difficult than an entry-level college course

Matthews point out that because they are controlled by the College Board, the public rubrics of AP courses make them more predictable than college courses. In Matthews’s follow-up piece, Luther Spoehr recognizes that the swift growth of AP courses has led to some difficulties, but argues that courses like AP History provide one of the last true surveys a student gets, focusing on a broad history that allows for a more significant cultural literacy.

In AP vs. College Courses: Which is Tougher,” Maureen Downey shares her belief that, “for the average ‘smart kid’, entry-level college courses are not tough” and says that this is not the case for AP classes and testing, which provide coursework she believes to be extremely difficult.  

Content knowledge vs. critical thinking: AP classes and college courses have different focuses

On the other hand, Jon Reider shares that advanced placement classes’ significant focus on content knowledge overrides an essential task highlighted in even the most basic college classes: thinking. He recalls that students with high AP test scores would enter his English classes with the ability to ace a content-based test, but would be unable to create arguments or revise essays because that was not the focus of the AP courses. 

Parent Rob Jenkins extends Reider’s ideas with personal anecdotes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, relating his experience parenting children in each kind of class. Jenkins pulls few punches, asking readers if they can “please dispense with the fiction that AP classes in any way resemble college courses.”

He recounts his experience watching his children engage with their work, sharing that the AP workload was significant, but that dual enrollment classes asked his daughter — for the first time in her academic life — to think. 

Jenkins points out an additional benefit of dual enrollment: the relative dearth of assignments, which makes each worth significantly more. This means that the stakes are higher in these dual enrollment classes and they give smart students an opportunity to adjust to college-level expectations and workloads.

College courses acquaint students with a variety of ages and perspectives

One clear difference between dual enrollment and AP that many overlook is the relative age of students in the classes. While age might not bring academic acumen, it does bring experience and some wisdom gained through that experience. The Advanced Placement classroom is self-limited to high school-aged students, but the dual enrollment classroom can contain a broad range of ages and experiences.

For some parents, this may be seen as an advantage for AP, since it limits younger students’ exposure to college life. But from an academic perspective, a broader student population can support the sort of free-range thinking and relation to a variety of life experiences that is unavailable in high school classrooms.

Ultimately, it seems the answer depends on the needs of the students.  Parents and students must stop asking, “AP or dual enrollment: which is best?” and begin asking, “Which is best for us?”


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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