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

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AP, IB, and dual enrollment:  that is the question.

A reader recently wrote in to ask my opinion about dual enrollment courses. She wanted 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.

What Is “Dual Enrollment” or PSEO?

First, a brief word of explanation about “dual enrollment,” or “post secondary enrollment options.”  Most states allow high school students to enroll in community college or university courses. These courses also apply the credits earned to their high school transcript.  Students enroll twice: they earn both high school AND college credits for the same course.  In some cases, community college faculty offer these courses in the high school.

In other cases cases, community college faculty “approve” or certify high school faculty a to offer college level courses after the college has approved the syllabus.  Sometimes 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.

Advantages of PSEO or Dual Enrollment

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?

Let’s look at the first question.

Are PSEO Credits Transferable?

The answer to the first question is fairly easy:  state colleges and universities will likely 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 student has earned a grade of C- or above. 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 classified as dual enrollment, 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 their college offers an equivalent course.  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. The amount of credit would depend 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 are you a good student who can handle college level work. And that you have demonstrated a high degree of mastery of the subject matter.

Mark’s Opinion

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 , 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 an acceptance letter from the most selective colleges, 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. Even students who get high grades in their AP courses core only 1 or 2 on the exams. (In other words, these students fail).   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. Nor does the label mean that a student will achieve the level of mastery required to score a 5 on the AP exam.  Many, many schools across the country offer AP courses that very poorly taught. Many teachers 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. They know that parents are noticing the disconnect between the brand name and teacher preparedness.  These steps by the College Board verify AP syllabi in all courses labeled AP are a good start.  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.

Conclusion

Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver fame enabled his poor, inner city students to pass the AP calculus exam. He was a fantastic, talented, workaholic teacher who did 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. He was my high school math teacher. He 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.

THIS JUST IN:  READ A TESTIMONIAL FROM A YOUNG WOMAN WHO CHOSE DUAL ENROLLMENT OVER ADVANCED PLACEMENT…AND IS GLAD SHE DID!

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

Great College Advice

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