Parsing Rigor: AP Classes vs. Community College

When it comes to college admissions, the rigor of the student’s high school coursework matters. Understandably, admissions committees want students who challenge themselves and who demonstrate that they’re able to successfully navigate demanding classes. For that reason, school counselors – and many families – focus on encouraging a student to rack up as many AP classes as possible. It might be time to re-evaluate that strategy.

AP Classes May Be Lacking

There are indicators that the Advanced Placement “brand” has been diluted. As an ever-increasing number of students complete an ever-increasing number of AP classes, some admissions officers believe that AP courses have been watered down. As a result, they feel as though AP classes are no longer the equivalent of college classes. Back in 2013, Dartmouth announced that it would stop offering college credit for top scores on the AP Psychology exam. Other elite schools are following suit. While two-thirds of colleges offer some kind of credit for an AP exam score of three or more, an increasing number are not. An article in the Wall Street Journal noted, “Admissions officers from some elite colleges say they still expect to see high-school transcripts loaded with AP courses, but don’t give much more than a pat on the back—and possibly an offer of admission—for the hard work.”

AP Classes are Big Business

The push for AP classes is complicated by the fact that it’s big money. In addition to the $94 test fee, schools pay for instructional materials. According to a 2017 article in the New York Times Magazine, in 2015 the College Board brought in $408 million in AP-related revenue. The article goes on to say, “As of last year, 29 states subsidized A.P. exams, 20 states offered financial incentives like teacher bonuses for strong A.P. scores and 30 states required that A.P. participation or scores be used in measuring school and district performance.” In addition, more than 20 states require their public universities to award college credit to those who score well on AP exams. Clearly, there are a lot of stakeholders in the AP industry.

If we accept this premise that AP classes aren’t as rigorous as college classes and that students who pay the money to take AP exams and who do well may or may not receive college credit, is checking the “rigor” box rationale enough for loading up on AP classes? Might there be a better and more productive way to achieve the original objectives?

The Community College Alternative

Enter community college. High school students who take and pass community college courses don’t have to wonder about whether or not they’ll get college credit. Community college is college, so any courses taken and passed will de facto confer college credit. In addition, many community college systems offer courses to high school students free of charge – without a $94 testing fee tacked onto the back end.

As with many things in life, though, there are a few caveats. Not all college credit is equal. If a student has a career objective and major in mind, then they can take courses that will transfer to meet either general education or prerequisite requirements. Otherwise, the college credit earned might be lumped into the “electives” category. Some states have websites that contain articulation agreements between community colleges and public universities, so that you can look up which community college classes can be substituted. Otherwise, it’s worth talking to the community college counselor and the four-year college counselor to get clarity on equivalent classes.

In addition, all high school students might not be eligible to take community college classes and not all college classes may be available to high school students. There may, for example, be GPA restrictions (only students who have a GPA of 2.7 or over), or a student may only be allowed to take classes that aren’t offered at their high school. In addition, students may only be allowed to attend community college courses outside of the regular school day, which can present transportation and time management challenges.

When a high school student does take one or more college courses, they need to have the maturity and dedication to do well. Once the course is over, the student will have a college transcript. If they don’t pass the course, that could negatively impact their ability to obtain need-based financial aid.

Taking challenging coursework in high school is important, but taking community college classes may have a bigger payoff than AP classes – both literally and metaphorically.

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About the Author:

Sally Smith is a college and scholarship coach who helps families navigate the path after high school. She facilitates in-person and online group workshops, and provides one-on-one coaching on a variety of topics. Sally can help families gain an understanding of the college selection, application, and decision process; pinpoint scholarship opportunities; write effective college admission and scholarship essays; decipher the FAFSA and CSS Profile; gather stellar letters of recommendation; and develop strategies for college entrance testing and test preparation. To learn more about the services she provides and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation, visit

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