Before our oldest child even started high school, she knew she was college-bound. As she wrapped up her sophomore year, my husband and I began talking through options to help her progress well through the remainder of high school in preparation for college. Those options naturally included discussions of AP and dual-enrollment courses.
The strongest advice seemed to indicate that getting a head start is definitely the best solution. Students can take college-level courses, get a feel for the different level of academics, and maybe even graduate from college early.
The Best Advice?
On the surface, my husband and I agreed with this advice. We both felt that we benefited from the head start opportunities given to us, and we wanted to give our daughter the same opportunities. But, the more we thought about it, the more uneasy we became. Was it possible that the head start options weren’t the best idea for our daughter after all? As we continued to research and discuss, three major issues began to present themselves.
1. The Importance of Foundation
Students who pursue AP and dual-enrollment options frequently have great grades and test scores, and a common misconception is that those factors provide a solid foundation for college. But, there is more to college prep than good grades and test scores.
In a Twitter response to an article discussing schools that were dropping AP courses¹, author and Liberty University literature professor Karen Swallow Prior stated, “In my experience, students who test out of general education college courses are often missing foundational skills when I get them in upper level courses.”²
The classes that students test out of through AP and CLEP³ are designed to help a student transition into college well. They give students an opportunity to learn the differences in both class and outside responsibilities at the college level, teaching solid study skills and presenting content and methods that are not incorporated into advanced high school or even many dual-enrollment courses.
Additionally, many high school graduates and college freshmen are uncertain when it comes to selecting a major. Even those who begin school with a declared major often change directions along the way. Liberal arts programs are becoming increasingly intentional about providing a wide range of freshman experiences to provide students with a solid foundation for their major of choice, while also helping them experience a variety of study options.
By engaging with professors and true college courses (as contrasted with “college-level” academics), students can discover avenues of study they would have never considered otherwise. From an academic perspective, the challenge of these courses may be very similar to what they would have taken through advanced high school options. But, the personality or specific content of freshman courses can vary enough to engage a student in an entirely new way.
On the other side of the coin, it is important to remember that AP and dual-enrollment courses represent a narrow band of available high school courses. Sometimes students focus so much on getting the advanced credit that they actually end up missing challenging, relevant high school courses that don’t provide college credit, but would ultimately help them grow, develop, and prepare for adulthood in ways an AP or dual-enrollment course never could.
One of the arguments for going into college with credit hours is that it will save money on college tuition in the long run, allowing students to graduate early. Unfortunately, that approach can also backfire. Entering college with too many hours of credit can actually eliminate the opportunity for some freshman/four-year scholarships. Even if a student is able to graduate early, the money lost from missed scholarships can cost more than a possible early graduation could save.
3. Letting High School Be High School
High school is a unique stage of life. Students are learning to reason, growing in independence, and getting an advance taste of adult life. But, it is also an anticipatory stage as teens look ahead to a looming and major change in life. We can talk them through it and help them prepare as best possible, but that doesn’t ease the reality that their way of life is about to change drastically. On the one hand, they are excited and ready to move on. On the other hand, there is a tension and a stress of anticipation. Even if they go to college close to home, their relationships with family and friends will never be the same, nor will the expectations placed on them.
When we pressure our students to get a head start on college, we’re adding an additional dynamic to the anticipation. For some, this is helpful. It gives them a chance to be actively working toward that college future. For others, however, it is a push and a rush that keeps them from enjoying what remains of their time in high school with family, friends, and their “childhood.”
Staying focused on high school gives students the opportunity to enjoy being a teen while pursuing extracurricular interests, work options, internships, or entrepreneurial opportunities that a heavier course load would not allow.
The Real Necessity
Experts and advisers who support getting a head start on college offer valid arguments. AP and dual enrollment do provide an ideal opportunity for some students. By pursuing these head start options with a judicious choice of courses and moderation in the number of hours taken, foundational and scholarship issues can be eliminated.
Ultimately, it comes down to what is best for each individual student, and getting a head start is not always the best option. If you’re uncertain about the “expert” advice, remember that you are ultimately the expert when it comes to your child!
You know your high schooler. You know what fits best with his or her personality, interests, and needs. The only necessity is that you work together with your student to make sure the route chosen is the one that will equip your student for success through high school, college, and beyond!
1. Scott Jaschik, “Rejecting AP Courses,” insidehighered.com/news/2018/06/19/eight-private-high-schools-washington-area-are-dropping-out-ap-program
3. CLEP tests assess a student’s general understanding of a topic. A high enough score (standards vary from school to school) may fulfill a school’s freshman level requirement for that subject. For instance, a student may CLEP out of freshman English or math. However, no credit hours are offered, so the student will still need to fill those hours with other courses to meet graduation requirements.