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AP or early college? What’s a student to do?

Options create choices for college-bound high schoolers

One thing’s for sure: Students have more options than ever to earn college credit while still in high school.

But more and more, they are finding themselves in guidance offices faced with an important decision: take Advanced Placement or early college courses?

What’s the best path to college, while saving money and avoiding debt? While AP courses are time-tested and globally recognized, they require a high exam score for college credit. A variety of early college programs allow students to earn college and high school credits simultaneously, without a separate exam, but they don’t transfer everywhere.

Related: How best to get the jump on college? Students give the lowdown

Options Aplenty

Advanced Placement Most high schools offer AP classes or the chance to take them online. The program was created in the 1950s by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. Students must pass an exam at the end of the course to earn college credit. Students pay $94 or a discounted fee as low as $15, based on economic need. At East Kentwood, approximately half of the exams are charged at the full rate and half receive a fee reduction; most pay $15 per exam.

Early College
These are programs that allow students to earn college credits through coursework in high school. Variations include dual enrollment, taught by college instructors, and concurrent enrollment, college-level courses taught by high school faculty. Rockford High School offers dual enrollment in partnership with Grand Valley State University’s Allied Health Sciences program, and concurrent enrollment through Ferris State University.

Then there is middle college, for which students can earn an associate degree for free by adding a fifth year as a high school student. Several local schools including Wyoming, Cedar Springs, Ottawa Hills and East Kentwood high schools, have middle college agreements with Grand Rapids Community College. Kenowa Hills offers middle college through Davenport University.

Also through GRCC, Ottawa Area ISD offers a certification program at Careerline Tech Center, and Kent ISD offers Launch U, where students earn an associate degree in mechanical design. Several other schools without a full middle college program offer GRCC classes for college credit.

So what’s a student to do? Like so many of life’s choices, educators say, it depends.

“A lot of our kids do both,” said Rachel Kreuze, a counselor at Rockford High School, which offers ample AP courses as well as early college options with Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University. “It really depends on the student and what is the best fit.”

East Kentwood High School also offers both opportunities: a broad slate of AP classes and EK Middle College, through which students can earn a Grand Rapids Community College associate degree for free while in high school.

Dan Clark, GRCC dean of Academic Outreach, said about 500 students are involved in the middle college opportunities, and interest is growing statewide.

“When we first started with Wyoming we were the 25th middle college in the state,” Clark said in a previous SNN article. “Now, in fall of 2018, there are over 150 middle college programs in the state.”

At Rockford High School, students have been offered courses for credit from Ferris State since 2013. This year, 223 students are taking at least one FSU class, Kreuze said. Twenty-one students are taking classes in the GVSU Allied Health Sciences program, where they can earn up to six credits.

All AP, All the Time

At both East Kentwood and Rockford, Advanced Placement is a popular program for college-bound students.

East Kentwood offers 21 AP courses in English, math, science, social studies and art. Currently, 711 students are enrolled in AP classes. In 2018, the school earned a silver medal from U.S. News and World Report for achievements including having an above-average 47 percent of students take AP tests and, of those, having 63 percent pass. A high number of minority students, traditionally underrepresented in AP, take the classes.

In Rockford, 488 students take AP classes among the 15 courses offered, from studio art and calculus to German and psychology. The district has been named four times to the AP District Honor Roll, including last year, for increasing access to underrepresented students and maintaining or increasing test scores of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale.

Enrollment in AP classes continues to grow despite the addition in recent years of the two early college options, Kreuze said. “I anticipated some fallout with AP, but it really hasn’t happened.”

Pros and Cons

Which path is right for a student depends on goals for college, career and financial needs, educators say.

Evan Hordyk, Kentwood Public Schools executive director for secondary education, said the mission is to have a good fit for everyone.

“One of our goals is to have an opportunity for and encourage every student to take a college level course while they are at EK,” Hordyk said. “(EK Middle College) just fits a different segment of the group. We wanted to encourage kids who thought AP maybe wasn’t for them. … Of course, the school and the state paying for it is a huge benefit to our families.”

Both options help students earn transferable college credits, but there are major differences. AP classes are year-long and taught by high school teachers. Students are required to pass an exam with a score of 3 to 5 to earn college credit.

Early college courses are semester-long, some of them taught by college instructors at high schools, for which students earn both high school and college credits. (No exam is required to ensure college credits are earned, just a successful grade in the class.)

The test requirement of AP courses intimidates some students, said Lisa Jacobs, who oversees Rockford’s early college programs. She recalled a student who passed an AP course, but was so afraid of failing the test that she didn’t take it — and therefore didn’t get college credit.

This was before the district offered early college. Had that option been available, “she would definitely have been able to earn the college credits,” Jacobs said.

Some students need guidance as to which AP courses they are likely to do well in, Kreuze said. And if they have a college in mind, it’s important they know what its requirements are for receiving AP credit, and what early college courses it will accept, Jacobs said.

Going Over Options

East Kentwood Program Development Coordinator Heather Downer said she and counselors talk to every student about options. “Some we will encourage to take our AP path,” she said, noting students who are advanced academically may best fit into AP.

Also, some universities don’t accept two-year associate of arts credits, while some colleges transfer the credits only as electives, Downer said.

“We talk to the student and ask them if they have a particular four-year university they really want to go to,” she said. “We also ask them about their career goals. If you want to be a chemist and you are a historically good student, then you may be better off going our AP route” in science courses. “We have other students that (Middle College) might be better for.”

Both programs expose high school students to college expectations in a place they feel safe and supported. While the main contact for GRCC courses is the professor, a success coach comes in once a week and students have access to GRCC advisers.

‘It really depends on the student and what is the best fit.’ — Rachel Kreuze, Rockford High School counselor

Semester-long college classes are an eye-opener to students used to a slower pace, Downer said. But it’s advantageous in that they learn to tackle quicker and less flexible deadlines and more reading in high school.

Both Offer Exposure, Rigor

East Kentwood Guidance Counselor Marc Mitchell said both AP and Middle College programs help students once they are on a college campus full-time. Students who drop or fail out of freshman year in college often haven’t been exposed to the rigor. “That’s why we encourage some type of an opportunity (in college courses). We just need to get them exposed.”

“They’ve got to have experiences while they’re in high school in order to start formulating their career goals,” Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler said in a previous SNN story. “We believe in Rockford that early college provides rigor for students to experience what college is all about.”

Some schools have decided to focus on one program over another. Kent City High School administrators decided several years ago to invest in dual enrollment rather than AP classes. The high school offers six GRCC classes for seniors to take to earn a total of 20 credits. Principal Bill Crane said 50 percent of students will graduate with some college credit. A few students also take AP classes online.

“We felt that students had a better chance of being successful and earning college credit by taking the courses through GRCC,” Crane said.

He also said intentionally offering several classes, but not a full middle college, is a way for students to get basics out of the way while still giving them flexibility to pursue any higher education program they want. “I felt like it limited options to our students by locking them into an associate’s from GRCC.”

By looking at each student’s goals, grades and financial needs, counselors say they can provide roadmaps to optimize how to get the most out of high school and college at the same time. For students like Rockford’s Jacob Simkins, it’s great to have choices.

“If there’s a course available, I’ll take it,” said Jacob, a senior. “I love learning and I want to be challenged.”


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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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