Dual Credit or AP: Which Is Better for College-Bound High School Students?

by | Feb 8, 2022 | Learning Design

When it comes to lowering the cost of college education, any path is a good path.

But students don’t have to rely solely on scholarships to get those prices down. High school students have a couple of options for earning college credit at a much lower cost than credit earned in college. Two of the most common options are Dual Credit and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Dual credit courses are typically offered through a college or university and students receive a transcript from that credit-granting partner when they successfully complete the course. AP courses are provided by The College Board, the same organization behind the SAT and CLEP. Students take a test at the end of the AP course and, depending on their score on that exam, can earn college credit for that course. Both dual credit and AP courses count toward a student’s high school graduation requirements.

So which path is better for students looking to lower the cost of their college degree? Both options expose students to college-level learning, but dual credit courses are more accessible to a wider range of students and have more transfer options.

Preparing Students for College-Level Learning

AP courses are often thought of as the highest level course a student can take in a subject in high school. And dual credit courses are, by definition, college courses. Both dual credit and AP courses give students an introduction to the rigors of college-level learning, through the depth of the material and how students show what they’ve learned.

Dual Credit

Dual credit courses are college-level courses taught by a college instructor. This is the same course that those enrolled in the college would take to complete their degree. In addition to the faculty and administrators working to create appropriately rigorous courses, these colleges and universities also have accreditors reviewing the programs as well.

Because dual credit courses are college-level, students are held to college-level standards. While there is support, students are expected to manage their time and develop study skills as they progress through the course.

The course material is likely to be more challenging than a typical high school course. At TEL, we build our courses by reviewing the syllabus and textbooks for similar college-level courses to identify the appropriate scope and sequence. Throughout the course, students are asked to do more than repeat content knowledge. The Mastery Assignments require students to think critically and make connections between what they’ve learned and outside knowledge and experiences.

AP Courses

Similar to dual credit courses, The College Board takes specific steps to make sure the course is on par with what students would encounter in college. For example, course materials must be selected from a specific list of approved college textbooks for this course. These textbooks include materials that are common in similar courses on college campuses.

The College Board also requires AP teachers to have advanced knowledge of their specific subject. Teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree in the discipline they are teaching, preferably an advanced degree. The pace of the AP course often requires significant work outside the classroom for studying and projects. Students in AP courses often have more reading and note-taking requirements than traditional high school courses.

While the assessments in the AP course are typically demanding, they work to prepare the students for the AP exam. The AP exam is a multi-hour test that includes free-response questions that use an evidence-based approach to assessment design, asking students to draw from their knowledge to make connections to different aspects of the course.

Which is Better?

In the case of college-level learning, it is a tie. Students typically have more flexibility with dual credit but both help prepare students for what they can expect in a college classroom.

Earning Transferable College Credit

Successfully completing a dual credit course earns the student a transcript from the credit-granting partner that can be transferred to any school. But even if the student passes the AP course, whether they earn college credit hinges on the score they get on the AP exam and the policies of the student’s target institution.

Dual Credit

Dual credit courses are term-long courses. Students have the full term to show they understand the concepts, get help if they need it, and have multiple opportunities to show what they’ve learned. There will likely be several exams and projects that make up the student’s final grade.

When they successfully complete the course, the student gets a transcript from the credit-granting partner that shows the course and the grade. Students have a few options to use that credit: they can enroll with the credit granting partner directly or submit the transcript as part of the application process of a different school. Because it is an official transcript, colleges and universities have a process for accepting that credit. By taking a general education course from a regionally accredited college or university, the chances are good that the credits will apply to a student’s degree program.

Some TEL credit-granting partners even provide guaranteed admission with a successful dual credit completion and scholarships if the student completes several courses. So not only does the student save on their degree through dual credit, but they also get scholarships!

AP Courses

Most schools accept AP credit as either college credit or to allow a student to test out of taking a specific course. That’s if the student passes the exam with a high enough score. Successfully passing the course does not guarantee AP credit. That comes down to the student’s score on the test.

Students can score from a 1 to 5 on the test. Schools start accepting credit at 3, but highly selective schools require a 5. The information covered in the test varies each year, and some tests have only had a 60% pass rate, meaning less than ⅔ of test takers earn a 3 or higher.

A search of University of Missouri System schools that accept AP U.S. History credits, and what score a student needs to earn. From https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/getting-credit-placement/search-policies.

Specific programs may also require a higher score, such as a Computer Science major needing a 5 to get credit for AP Computer Science. Some schools don’t accept AP credit at all. Students and counselors can go to The College Board to see the requirements for their target school.

Which is Better?

When it comes to having the most options after high school, dual credit is the clear winner. With an official transcript from a regionally accredited institution, the chances are good that students can transfer that credit to their degree program. If the student knows exactly which school they want to attend, knows the AP policy for that school, and earns the appropriate score, AP courses can be a good option. But that’s a lot of faith to put into one test.

Building Students’ Confidence

Successfully completing a college-level course gives students confidence that they can be successful in college. But many students have barriers, such as cost and the belief that they can do it. High school is the perfect place for students to try.

Dual Credit

Even though dual credit is significantly less expensive than traditional college courses, there is still a cost associated with it. Many state governments have recognized the benefits of students earning college credit in high school because many states will subsidize the tuition costs.

Many students who have not been on the advanced or honors track in high school may not feel as though they would be successful in college. But the best time to try is in the supported environment of their high school. With dual credit, there is often a lower barrier to entry. And good dual credit programs will offer multiple layers of support in case the student needs an extra hand.

With dual credit, students have a drop date and a withdrawal date in case this isn’t the best time to take the course. Students also have multiple chances to show their knowledge through exams and projects. If they pass the course with a C or above, they still earn transferable college credit.

AP Courses

Cost isn’t typically a barrier for students taking an AP course offered through their school. There is an out-of-pocket cost to take the exam, which is usually around $95. Many schools will work with students who can’t pay the fee.

One of the biggest barriers to AP courses is access. AP courses are usually small, so they are often only offered once a term. Interested students may not be able to fit it into their schedules. And schools may not be able to offer all the course options because they don’t have faculty who can teach them. Additionally, there is the perception that you have to be at the top of the class in order to do well in an AP course. AP courses are known to be rigorous, which might make average students who still plan to attend college not feel comfortable taking the course.

And then there is the pressure that it all comes down to one test. If the student does poorly on the exam, they can feel that college is not for them.

Which is Better?

Dual credit is a better option for most students interested in earning college credit. Students who might not otherwise feel confident taking a college course have more opportunities to be successful with a dual credit course.

Providing More Options With Dual Credit

If your student is motivated, has taken advanced courses throughout their educational career, knows the school they want to attend for college accepts AP credits, and your school offers the courses they want to take, AP is a great choice. But if you want to offer your students the most options during and after high school, dual credit provides more opportunities for a wider range of students.

If your school is looking for a flexible and affordable way to offer a full catalog of general education dual credit courses, check out TEL Education’s catalog. We work with more than 10 regionally accredited colleges and universities to provide transferable college credit.

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