Are Advanced Placement classes a scam?

It's not too difficult to find people telling you that AP classes are a scam. That's usually the word they use, too: scam. Look here, and here, and here.

So, let's ask: are AP courses a scam?

In a word, no. 

Scam is a little overblown. Scam implies fraud and malice, that the College Board is knowingly selling something worthless just to make a buck. And that's not true. But if the critics were to change the headline to "AP programs are a lot more complicated than they're often made out to be," they would be right (even if it made for a boring headline).

Let's look at the main arguments brought against Advanced Placement and the College Board, and let's think about what they mean for you, the college-bound high school student.

1. You don't know what you're really getting. The College Board is pretty careful not to promise you that a 3 on an AP Exam will automatically earn you college credit, but that caution doesn't always make it down to the counselors and teachers at individual schools. Plenty of students are promised more than might actually be delivered.

Each college decides for itself what to give students for high AP exam scores. Some will indeed give you college credit for a 3 or higher; some will give you credit only for a 4 or 5, and some only award credit for a 5; some don't give credit, but will let you use the exam to meet course requirements; some give you absolutely nothing.

So imagine two students at the same high school, who take the same 10 AP courses over three years, get the same grades in those courses, and get 3s on all those exams. One might start college with 30 hours of credit and graduate a year early, while the other may see no change in college. What's really frustrating for a lot of high school students that the critics rarely take into account is that you have to take the courses and sign up for the exams before you know what college you're going to and what they'll give you for good scores. While I don't think that's part of the College Board's plan and a scam, it definitely sucks.

2. AP classes aren't as good as they're made out to be. This is often true, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the teacher is new or just isn't that good. Maybe the students are a lot more interested in making their transcript look good than they are in actually doing college-level work. Maybe the students aren't prepared to do college-level work. Perhaps the school set up an AP class without committing the extra resources to make it a good AP class. I've heard of schools that actually labeled classes as "AP" without instituting AP curriculum just to use loopholes in the state "no pass no play" rules for athletes. The College Board is aware of these problems, and has been trying over the years to address them. Teachers are supposed to submit syllabi for an "AP Audit" to make sure they're up to standards (although the College Board can't really check to make sure the syllabus is followed). The College Board also has systems to let colleges know if your high school actually has students pass AP exams or just labels classes as AP.

Pretty much everyone whole-heartedly agrees that an AP class, even a good one, doesn't actually replicate a good college course. But most people will also begrudgingly admit that a really good AP class can be a lot better than a mediocre or remedial college class. For example, for two years I taught AP English Language using the exact same syllabus I used to teach freshman comp at the university where I went to grad school. Same reading, same essay assignments. But I had almost twice the amount of time with students per week, and much more dedicated students. (Plus, we had time to read The Great Gatsby on top of the rhetoric curriculum, and Gatsby is always a good thing.)

There's also no denying that AP courses--especially math and science courses--cover too much breadth to allow for much depth. This makes AP teachers feel a lot of pressure to keep going and make it through all the topics rather than slow down for good discussion and time-hogging projects that could help student understanding.

3. There are opportunity cost for high schools. AP classes generally cost high schools more money than regular classes. Even if the schools make students pay all the costs for tests, the training for teachers and time spent dealing with the audit paperwork and compliance means that schools have to pay more. AP classes often have much smaller student/teacher ratios than regular classes. The extra money and desks have to come from somewhere, and they usually come from regular classes. So AP classes take resources away from students who may need more help graduating high school and give them to students trying to get college credit. Add to that the disparity between upper-income and lower-income students in most AP classes, and the whole AP program can look pretty unfair and backwards.

4. The College Board makes money. The College Board regularly makes more money than it spends, and non-profit organizations are really not, by definition, supposed to make a profit. They also pay their executives a lot of money--the CEO makes around $1.3 million a year. These are valid and important concerns, but here's the thing: they have nothing to do with you as a high school student. "The company really ought to be taxed as a regular corporation instead of a 501(c)3" isn't the same as "AP is a scam." If their tax status changed, their exams would not. But what about all the money you pay for tests? Shouldn't the tests be cheaper instead of paying the executives a fat-cat salary? There were almost 4.5 million AP exams given in 2015. If all the executives gave back all their salaries and worked for free, just because it's the right thing to might save you a buck on your exam. The non-profit status of the College Board is an interesting problem for policy-makers and consumer advocates, but it really doesn't affect you as a high school student.

There are other points that critics make about the AP program, and this quick summary obviously lacks the nuance and detail of the whole argument. But this is the gist of it. And based on these very real problems, many people conclude that AP is a scam. So how should you feel about that?

Let's think about something completely different for a moment: cars. Cars make a good analogy.

Cars are dangerous. Around 35,000 Americans die each year in car crashes, and that's just the deaths. When you add major injuries and property destruction to the figures, you see that driving cars is one one of the most destructive , dangerous, risky things people do. And yet there are over 250 million cars in the United States. You can legally drive years before you can legally drink alcohol or even vote! Car companies advertise their products everywhere, all the time, and (usually) make a lot of money.

Are cars a scam? Of course not.

While driving is indeed very risky, it's worth the risk for most people. It's pretty hard to imagine modern life working without cars. Chances are that you've already been in at least one car trip today. The trick, of course, is to get the full advantage of cars while minimizing the risks. You have to drive safely.

For high school students, AP courses are similar. While not a scam, they come with risks, and you have to be smart about them. The sky is not falling, but you're not guaranteed safety either. There are things you can do to get the most out of an AP program without feeling like you got scammed.

1. Understand why you're taking AP courses, and be ready to explain yourself. There are plenty of reasons to take an AP course. If your reasons are more in the range of "it's a strong class at my school in a subject I care deeply about," then you're great. If your reasons are in the realm of "because someone said I should" or "it looks good to colleges, right?" then you need to do some more reflective thinking.  Explain to yourself and be prepared to explain to others why you are taking a specific course or not. If you elect not to take an AP course that's available, then you will need to be ready to explain that choice to college admissions. If it's a good reason that you can explain well, then you run very little risk of it "looking bad" to colleges.

If your reason for taking or passing over an AP course includes the word "just," stop and think through what's going on.

If your reason for taking an AP class is because you think it will make you seem more worthy, then stop and think through what's going on.

Going back to the car analogy: it would be pretty silly to choose a car based only on the fact that a magazine called it "car of the year." It would also be really expensive to decide that, because you don't know exactly what kind of driving you'll be doing over the next five years, you'll go ahead and buy a sports car...and a minivan...and a pickup truck...and a motorcycle. Be thoughtful and realistic about your choices, in cars and classes.

(Sometimes you have to take an AP class you don't want to take, or cannot take an AP class you want to take, for reasons out of your control. It happens, and it stinks. Everyone understands, if you'll explain the situation and make the best out of it.)

2. Consider the risks. What I consider the two biggest risks to balance when deciding on how many AP courses to take are these:

  *  for most AP exams in most years, about 40% of students only get a 1 or 2. Only 10-20% get a 5 (foreign-language exams have higher rates). Taking an AP course does not come close to ensuring you get anything for it from colleges. 

  * there are colleges who will not give you credit for AP scores, but who still expect you to take AP courses in high school. They do this not because they believe the AP course is a good substitute for a college course (obviously), but because they see AP courses as "the most rigorous" classes available, and they want to see that you avail yourself of the most rigorous. If I were going to point fingers at the scammers, it would be these schools more than the College Board, but that's for a different post.

3. Think about opportunity cost. For every AP course you choose to take, spend some time brainstorming about the opportunity costs. If not for the more demanding class with more studying, what would you be doing with the time and energy? If it's something productive that helps you achieve your academic goals, then you may well choose to skip the AP class. If there's a good chance you'd waste the time in whatever manner you waste time, then don't sell yourself short by missing out on the better class.

4. Don't be a part of the problem. The critics are right: in most schools, advanced classes get better-trained teachers with smaller student loads than regular or remedial classes. While there are sound arguments for why this is ok, there are also sound arguments for why this is unacceptable. If you're getting the most from an AP class and can be a more valuable and productive citizen over time, you can feel fine about yourself. But if you're taking up resources just to goof off, knowing you're not going to take the exam seriously, you're contributing to the problem. Sure, it's the system that makes it easy for you to take advantage of inequity; you didn't set up the system. But you're still a part of the inequity if you don't take your AP classes at least as seriously as your school does.

Schedule, study, and drive safely!

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**Advanced Placement, Pre-AP, AP, and College Board are trademarks owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and which does not endorse, Apply with Sanity.

**Full disclosure: over the years, I taught Pre-AP English 1 and 2, AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition, and AP Art History. I've taken many many hours of AP training. I was a reader for the AP Art History exam three times, which means I was technically an employee of Educational Testing Service.