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Should colleges be required to accept AP credit? PPI’s Weinstein & AEI’s Malkus debate

By / 9.30.2016

Rising college tuition prices have become a serious obstacle for many low and middle income students. One potential way to manage those costs is through Advanced Placement (AP), which allows students to earn college credit in high school, thereby reducing the time and money needed for a degree. But not all colleges grant credit for AP, and many cap the amount they accept or require test scores above the AP standard.

In a recent report, Paul Weinstein, Jr., of the Progressive Policy Institute, documents the limits colleges place on AP credit. He recommends new requirements — that colleges accept AP credit and students’ test fees be waived — to ensure the benefits of AP are equally accessible to all students.

AEI’s Nat Malkus responds with concern, countering that Weinstein’s recommendations might have unintended consequences for AP programs, which have successfully produced value for students and colleges alike by maintaining quality even as access has increased.

Both make compelling points. We invited them to discuss them below, hoping to foster constructive, substantial dialogue on how policy should influence these valuable programs.

Group school exam

Paul Weinstein:

The American higher education system is the finest in the world. Yet there are big cracks in the ceiling and the cause is money – or more specifically the amount of cash students need to attend college and graduate school.

Fueled by the ability of students to access relatively cheap loans through the student loan program, colleges and universities have been jacking up the cost of college. Since 1981, tuition and fees have risen 129% in real terms while median family incomes have grown only 11% over the same period.

Current reform proposals such as debt forgiveness and more subsidized loans will enable schools to continue to raise the price of tuition. To cut the cost of college and ensure students get the best educational experience – on campus – we must help students earn their bachelor’s degree faster. Moving to a three-year degree would save students anywhere from $9,000 (public institutions) to $30,000 (private institutions), open more slots at better schools, and avoid pushing students into MOOCs or shady for-profit institutions.

How do we transition to a three-year degree? One step is to ensure that students who successfully complete Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB), or other recognized assessments receive actual course credit instead of a pat on the back.

Unfortunately, despite encouraging students to spend time and money on AP courses and tests, colleges aren’t always giving them course credit when students succeed.  Among the top 152 colleges and universities, 83 percent restrict AP credit (including a growing number that deny credit completely). Schools argue they are acting to ensure quality – that AP courses don’t measure up.  Yet many of those same schools acknowledge that these students have mastered college-level coursework by allowing them to waive core requirements for that same AP coursework.  That simply does not pass the smell test.

It’s time for schools to reward hard work and put students first.  Ensuring colleges and universities do not overly restrict AP and IB credit for the sake of additional revenue should be prevented.  And no school that encourages applicants to take AP and IB courses should be allowed to deny course credit for successful work.

Nat Malkus:

Paul, you rightly identify rising college costs as a problem, and I agree it’s far better to lower those costs, rather than pumping more money into the system. It’s also prudent to make the most of proven systems, like AP courses and exams, in that effort.

I encourage readers to read your succinct report, because it usefully leverages new data to plainly show that some students may be in for a bait-and-switch when they learn they won’t get college credits for their hard earned AP scores. This issue is worthy of attention, but I think the problem may be smaller than you believe, and that your solution could have negative unintended consequences.

The data indeed show a majority of institutions restrict AP credit.  However, only 6% refuse all AP credit, and the remainder give credit for 85% of AP exams. Most institutions accept the standard score of 3, while a minority require 4’s or 5’s. Again, most take all students’ AP credit, but 38% have an upper limit. As I see it, giving full credit for AP work isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.

Nonetheless, relatively small problems may still warrant a solution. But requiring all colleges and universities to give full AP credits will take away an important check on AP program quality.

Critics have long warned that AP quality is or will be eroded by rapid program growth.  My research suggests such watering down of AP hasn’t happened broadly, yet, and it is worth considering why. In part, it is because the College Board has had to focus on quality because AP serves both students and post-secondary institutions, and they serve neither well if quality slips and more institutions refuse credit.

If AP credit were required by law, it would erode the pressure to maintain AP rigor to preserve the high voluntary acceptance rates among post-secondary institutions. Those high acceptance rates are evidence of AP’s high quality. It’s predictable – and it would be unfortunate – that an overzealous effort to maximize the benefits of AP could ultimately undermine the educational quality of such a successful program.

Paul Weinstein:

Nat, your excellent research is really key here – that the rapid growth in AP course and exam takers has not diminished the quality of the program.  Unfortunately, many schools have used that fallacious argument to restrict or eliminate credit for AP work. Just look at the case of Dartmouth.  With regards to your argument that “giving full credit for AP work isn’t the exception. It’s the rule,” I would reiterate that not only do the majority of institutions on my list limit AP credit, but almost half don’t offer any credit for a score of 3 – and even among those schools that do accept a minimum score of 3, most require a score of 4 or 5 for certain AP subjects.

Your second point, that a government solution could lower AP quality, is worthy of consideration.  There are always positive and negative consequences to any policy.  But one way to ensure quality remains high is to give schools a seat at the table in developing the AP curriculum and examinations.

Nat Malkus:

Paul, I think we agree on the problem here, and only marginally disagree on its scale. I am less convinced than you that post-secondary institutions limit AP credit primarily for profit, but wholeheartedly agree that institutions that do so should stop.

Your report proposes some big solutions — that Congress mandate AP credit and the administration underwrite AP exam fees — which I have taken issue with elsewhere.  I will add here that those solutions are unlikely, especially given Congressional productivity.

Since it is too easy to critique without offering solutions, I will throw out one of my own which would be readily achievable. The Department of Education could collect and report institutions’ AP credit policies­, including the exams for which they give credit, any caps they have, and what scores they accept. That transparency won’t force any changes, but institutions that want the best students will have to balance their AP restrictions with possibly losing some of them. The administration has made multiple attempts to shed light on college costs and outcomes, and this is an easy step in that direction. If nothing else, by making the terms for credit clear up front, it could keep unwitting students from the AP bait-and-switch.

Paul Weinstein, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and director of the graduate program in public management at Johns Hopkins University. Nat Malkus is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.