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AP, IB, and Dual Enrollment (or PSEO): An Analysis

A reader recently wrote in to ask my opinion about dual enrollment courses, and to compare them to the Advanced Placement (or AP) options at her sons’ school.  The question came on a post I wrote analyzing the worth of AP courses.

First, a brief word of explanation about “dual enrollment,” or what some know as PSEO:  “post secondary enrollment options.”  Most states now allow high school students to enroll in community college or university courses and to apply the credits earned to their high school transcript.  Students are thus dually enrolled: they earn both high school AND college credits for the same course.  In some cases, these courses are offered in the high school by community college faculty.  In some cases, high school faculty are “approved” or certified by the community college to offer college level courses after the college has approved the syllabus.  In some cases, students leave their high school to attend courses at the community college.  However they are organized, dually enrolled students receive two sorts of credit for their work.  They receive grades on their high school transcript, and the same grades are recorded in their college transcripts.  Two birds, one stone.

The advantages of dual enrollment/PSEO courses include:

  • High schools can offer honors level courses without hiring new staff
  • Districts can save money by partnering with community colleges
  • Parents can save on college tuition, because these college credits are transferable to most state universities
  • Students demonstrate that they can handle college-level work
  • Students who doubt their own abilities to succeed in college experience success and are more likely to apply to college–and eventually graduate
  • Community colleges and 4-year institutions build a pipeline of students moving from high school to college
  • State governments and local governments appreciate the collaboration between K-12 and higher education


In states where PSEO options exist, the state government creates master articulation agreements to ensure that credits earned while in high school are  guaranteed transfer to higher education systems in that state.  Thus, if you take a dual enrollment course in Virginia, your credits are automatically accepted for credit by state-funded universities in Virginia–as long as the grade earned is a C- or above, and as long as the courses are considered academic, “general education” course (as opposed to remedial or developmental courses, or technical or industrial skills courses.

So now for my reader’s question, which has two parts:

First, if students in Florida take PSEO credits in Florida, are those college credits applicable only to Florida colleges, or will they be accepted elsewhere?

Second, which makes more sense:  dual enrollment courses for college credit, or AP courses for college credit?

The answer to the first question is fairly easy:  state colleges and universities are very likely to accept PSEO credits from another state, as long as the credits are listed on a transcript from an accredited community college or university.  Universities in Colorado, therefore, will accept credits from Florida, as long as they are academic in nature and the grade earned is above a C-. In Colorado, there is NO LIMIT to the number of credits that can thus be transferred.  If all the courses a student takes in her junior and senior years of high school are dually enrolled, then effectively that student conceivably could enter as a first semester JUNIOR in college (depending on where the credits are and how they conform to the university’s graduation and major requirements).  In Colorado, the student with PSEO credits enters as a first-year student, not as a transfer student. (In Colorado, if a high school graduate takes college courses after earning a high school diploma, the student cannot take more than 12 semester hours of credit without being considered a transfer student, which may mean the number of credits transferred in can be limited.)

Private colleges are a different matter, however.  As private entities, they are free to establish their own transfer criteria. Thus it is best to check in advance of applying what the college’s policy toward dual enrollment or PSEO credits will be.  Some will be happy to transfer the courses in, as long as there is an equivalent offered at their college.  Others may require a grade of B or better to transfer.  Some more selective colleges may use PSEO credits only to waive prerequisites or for placement purposes.  One thing is clear, however:  colleges and universities of all types smile upon students who have completed dual enrollment or PSEO courses.  These courses demonstrate the ability to do college-level work, and they send the signal to admissions offices that this student is likely to succeed at our college–because they have been tested in real college environments.

Now for the second question:  which is better, AP or PSEO?  The answer is:  it depends.

First, some schools are unable to offer both AP and PSEO.  In fact, rural high schools are much more likely to rely on PSEO courses than AP, because dual enrollment is less expensive to the school district–especially if there is not enough demand to fill a complete AP course.  So if there is no AP or IB option in your school, you should definitely consider PSEO options.

Second, if your goal is to reduce the costs of attending a state university, PSEO credits are a guaranteed discount.  Because states automatically require these courses to transfer, any PSEO course you take will reduce the number of credits you must complete (and pay for!) while in college.  As long you dually enroll in a college prep course and you get a C- or better, you get the college credit.  The AP test, by contrast, comes with a high stakes test:  take the course, get an A, and then take the test.  If you pass with a score of 3, 4, or 5, you MIGHT get college credit, based on the policy in place at a particular college or university.  And as I have written, an A in the class is no predictor of success on the AP test.

Third, if your school has a strong AP program that has a history of success in helping students earn 4s and 5s on the AP test, you might want to consider the AP courses if you plan to attend a highly selective college or university.  The reason is this:  the AP test is a demonstration of proficiency and competence in a subject matter.  While a credit is a demonstration that you did what the teacher or professor required of you, the AP test is a nationally-normed test.  A score of 5 on that test communicates that not only are you a good student who can handle college level work, but that you have demonstrated a high degree of mastery of the subject matter.

My opinion is that a score of 5 on the AP US History test communicates more about the student’s intellectual capacity and academic proficiency than an A in an introductory US history course offered by my local community college.  While I have not done a scientific survey of admissions officers at selective colleges to reinforce my opinion, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that most of my peers would agree.  Standardized test, despite their flaws, do help admissions officers compare apples to apples.  They help to separate grades from proficiency.  High scores provide external verification that the grades a student earns are an expression of content mastery.  So if your aim is to be admitted to the most selective colleges in the land, you should consider taking AP courses.

There is a caveat, however, that brings us back to my reader’s original question. She said that her school has a low pass rate in the AP program, and that students often get high grades in their AP courses and then score only 1 or 2 on the exams (i.e., they fail them).   Thus I come back to my point in my previous post regarding AP courses:  just because a course is labeled AP does not mean that it is a good course or that a student will achieve the level of mastery required to score a 5 on the AP exam.  Many, many schools across the country are offering AP courses that very poorly taught by teachers who do simply do not have the content background or pedagogical skill to prepare students for these rigorous exams.

The College Board is trying to ratchet up the standards, because they know that parents are noticing the disconnect between the brand name and teacher preparedness.  The steps the College Board is taking to verify AP syllabi in all courses labeled AP is a good first step.  But in the end, success in the AP (or IB) program is not about the curriculum alone.  It is about the teacher who delivers that curriculum.

Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver fame was able to get his poor, inner city students to pass the AP calculus exam not because he had a good syllabus, but because he was a fantastic, talented, workaholic teacher who would not rest until his students passed that exam.  Teachers in your school’s AP program may resemble Mr. Escalante.  Or they may resemble Mr. Larson, my high school math teacher, who was as creative as a lima bean and as dedicated as an assembly line worker two weeks before retirement.  An AP syllabus in his hands would make it highly unlikely than anyone but Einstein himself would pass that AP Calculus exam.


Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

Great College Advice



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Reader Interactions


  1. I was just looking up opinions to help guide by daughter as she enters HS for her options and came upon this. It has been helpful. Personally, I attended a local community college for PSEO and did very well for my entire junior summer and senior year. My mother was a resourceful woman, and although the schools fought students enrolling in this at the tme, she pushed through. She did legwork and checked with the PRIVATE COLLEGE that I was planning to attend in the medical career for the following year… then she ensured the pre-req classes I was taking at the community college would indeed transfer. I actually detested history, had begun taking a history class at the college and during the time span of knowing I wouldn’t do well, I dropped the class so it wouldn’t apply to my grades or $$$. I took 1 semester class of poly sci at the HS and then all the rest of my classes at the college. I graduated HS with approx 26-30 credit hrs paid in full and went on to college allowing myself a lighter load. I WILL NEVER REGRET WHAT I DID!!! Excellent experience and saved me much much money at the private school I attended.

    I don’t know much about the IB program… but looks like I’ll probably guide my daughter towards the same route I took. We’ll see.

  2. I am a high school freshman, last year in junior high (weird I know). I have two high school options, one school with AP only, the other IB and a few arts AP courses. (both offer PSEO at the UoMN and a community college)I live in Minnesota, and am aiming for Ivy League, MIT, or Cal Tech. I am heavily interested in science, math, and computers. Including things like weighted GPA, which would you suggest is best course for me?
    Side note: I don’t just want boring easy classes, I also want to LEARN, but not sacrifice a good college like MIT. Also I am in Spanish 3 and Orchestra.

  3. Hello everyone! I am a college testing coordinator, and I have to tell you that I think the conversation going on here is a fabulous one. My kids will never take AP courses. With that said, let me tell you why. Mark has said several times that “it depends” on any number of indicators what option is the best for your child. While both our college, and our high school have some fabulous instructors, like everywhere, we have our duds. The husband/wife team who teach junior year AP English/History here insist that they be taken together, or not at all. The kids receive a packet from each teacher in July, with quite a bit of reading and homework that has to be completed prior to the first day of class. As Mark has noted, the end result of all of this work – and many nights of midnight studying – all depends on the score they receive on the test whether they get college credit for it or not. I paid for my sophomore to take math here at the college because the math teacher at the high school teaches in a monotone. He loved it. I am fortunate because I know the instructors here, so I can help him choose those that are great at their jobs. If you do not have that edge, feel free to have your child keep their ears open for feedback on instructors. We are also utilizing CLEP credits to complete his Associate’s degree ahead of schedule. Like with everything else, you have to be certain of what credit will be granted in the end, but he will be done with both community college and high school at the same time.

  4. Hello,

    It sounds like you have high aspirations, which is great! One thing to think about is that there is AP Computer Science (though I am not sure that it is offered at your high school) and I don’t believe their are computer science classes in the IB curriculum. The AP curriculum provides a lot of flexibility, allowing students to take course that interest them. The IB Diploma is seen as the most challenging curriculum you can take and it really focuses on encouraging students to well-rounded, active learners. I think the question you need to ask yourself is how much structure do you want in high school courses?

    If you have any further questions, please feel free to give us a call: +1.720.279.7577

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  5. Hello,

    It is difficult for us to assess the chances of you being admitted to a particular school without viewing your entire profile. In the grand scheme of things, you need to make the decision that is best for you.

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  6. Wow mark I TRULY enjoyed reading this article!!! My daughter got accepted to a Cambridge program at her charter school for 7th grade. I really wasn’t that excited but went ahead. Your article really explained to me the difference between ap & dual enrollment. Due to personal demands, dual enrollment is the way to go. It seems Cambridge focues on either being a doctor or lawyer which neither is where we want to go. What are some steps we can take now to prepare her for dual enrollment? She will be taking algebra one this year in 7th grade so is there any other classes she could take to get her on the right path? Thanks a lot!

  7. Hi, Crystal,
    Glad you found the article helpful. All you really need to do is help your daughter perform well. If she’s taking algebra already, then she should be well-prepared to enter some dual enrollment courses. Check with her intended high school in order to understand the policies and the options available.
    Good luck!

  8. I am currently working for IB certificates in several areas. While I know I can get college credits in these areas I have begun to wonder if I may be able to recieve more course credits at a quicker rate by simply duel enrolling with a local university. Any options or past experiences?

  9. Hi Grant,
    Different colleges have different policies regarding the college credits they will accept from IB vs. a local university. I would encourage you to check with the colleges that you are interested to confirm their policy. Thanks!

  10. Hello! I have a question that if my son applies and got accepted to a dual enrollment program, does it mean he will spend his full-time school year for this dual enrollment program in college instead of going to HS for his senior year?

  11. My son is entering an AICE Cambridge program in Florida. However, he is looking into going either Harvard, Yale, MIT or Columbia (North). Because he is a very good student, they are offering dual enrollment by 10th grade through a local college recognized in Florida and he is also starting to do one AP class. Which route would you recommend to go? He is concerned about AICE program not having enough weight as an AP course for admittance…
    Thank you.

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