Use AP Credits to Graduate From College in 3 Years

US News & World Report
By Farran Powell
May 9, 2018

Students are using AP credits earned in high school to complete college early, reducing their tuition costs.

The strategy to shave off a year in college costs begins with taking the right courses in high school.

Many high schools allow students to take Advanced Placement courses or college-level classes through local community college partnerships. APs are also taught in high school on a variety of subjects, ranging from U.S. history to computer science.

Typically, a score of at least 3 on an AP exam will earn a student college credit, but it depends on a school’s AP policies. Some colleges and universities may require a 4 or 5 on an exam; the maximum score on an AP exam is 5.

More than 2.6 million high school students took 4.7 million AP exams in 2016 – double the number of students and tests taken 10 years ago, according to the College Board, the organization that administers the exam.

These exams can offer a cost-effective way for students to earn college credits, since scores on APs often allow freshmen to skip certain introductory college courses or gain credit toward graduation.

“For students who are very certain about what they want to study, do in life, and in particular, save money, it may make sense to accelerate through one to two semesters [of college] using AP credits,” says Christine Chu, a college admissions counselor at New York-based IvyWise.

Rebecca Buddingh, for instance, earned enough AP credits in high school to enter college at the sophomore level. The California native says her credits saved her family nearly $60,000 in college costs.

“I originally enrolled in AP classes in high school to increase my chances of getting into good schools. But it wasn’t a cost consideration until I selected USC to go to and realized that I would be able to make graduating early work for myself,” says Buddingh, who completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California in three years.

While not all of her credits transferred, she was able to use credits from eight AP exams that amounted to 32 credits – one-fourth of the credits needed to graduate.

Buddingh emphasizes that USC’s generous AP credit transfer policy helped her limit student loans, since she only borrowed $20,000. The average college student who graduated in 2016 left school with nearly $29,000 in debt, according to U.S. News data.

“Having to attend for another year would have resulted in student debt for me,” she says.

Here are a couple of aspects to consider when using AP credits to graduate from college early.

Public institutions tend to be more flexible in allowing AP credits. “I have found that public universities are more accepting of AP and dual credit courses for credit than private universities,” says Jolyn Brand, a Houston-based educational consultant.

Brand also has a son at Purdue University—Lafayette in Indiana who is on track to complete his bachelor’s in computer science in three years. “With AP credit and a few dual credit classes, he entered Purdue with 39 credits. Purdue gave him more credits for those transfer classes than his in-state options in Texas,” she says.

In Indiana, an AP score of 3 or higher is awarded as credit automatically at any of the state’s public institutions.

In fact, at least 20 states require public institutions to award credit for strong AP test scores; this helps students matriculate through college faster. Some states that adopted this policy recently include Nevada, Illinois and Texas.

One public system known for being generous with AP credits: the University of California. UC schools award AP credits for exams that are 3 or higher.

“The way it works at UC is once you get your system set up, it’ll transfer in all the data from APs and dual enrollment,” says Maggie Kravchuk, who graduated from the University of California—Santa Barbara in 2014. “Before my first quarter, I was just on the cusp of being a sophomore. So by the time my first quarter was done, I was already at sophomore level.”

Kravchuk estimates her early graduation saved thousands of dollars in both college and housing costs.

Private institutions tend to be more restrictive with AP credits. “There is a general correlation between the stringency of the AP credit policy and college or university’s rigor or selectivity,” says Chu who used to work in admissions at Yale University and Georgetown University.

Some schools, such as Dartmouth College and Brown University, don’t offer any credit for APs.

The 2016 publication Diminishing Credit: How Colleges and Universities Restrict the Use of Advanced Placement concluded: “A more prosaic reason for denying students AP credit could be boosting tuition revenue. It’s no secret that U.S. colleges and universities depend increasingly on tuition to keep their doors open.”

But there are a number of selective private institutions that award credit for some AP exams. Some of these highly selective schools include Harvard University, Princeton University and Rice University.

“The number of credits may vary by exam and by score; others will not award any credits even for a 5, but may allow students to place into higher-level courses with a strong AP score,” Chu says.

Her advice: “The best approach would be to research thoroughly each college’s specific policy and read the fine print.”