At Minnetonka High School, students take advanced courses to bolster their chances of getting into a selective college or because they hope to get credit for a college class. Others sign up because of a must-have teacher or to be with high-achieving students.
These may be the reasons that students are increasingly taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, according to Phil Trout, a school counselor at the suburban Minneapolis school, but parents increasingly hope the practice will save them money, too. "There is an antsiness to get going, and the undercurrent is largely financial," he said.
But colleges don't always see the trend the same way. And state lawmakers are entering the debate by passing laws requiring public colleges and universities to set uniform policies for recognizing AP, IB, and dual-enrollment courses that students take in high school.
"Colleges and universities are reluctant to give away the farm because in doing so, you give up valuable tuition revenues," said Mr. Trout, who also is the president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Some top selective institutions, where high-achieving students can enter with years of college-level coursework from high school, are becoming stricter in the awarding of credit. Not facing the same volume of incoming credits, public institutions generally are more accepting. The patchwork of increasingly fluid policies, often varying within departments in a college, leaves many students and parents uncertain about how advanced coursework will pay off and pushing for greater transparency.
For example, according to a 2013 survey by the College Board, of 1,380 institutions with a total of 39,000 policies, 68 percent of policies give AP credit for a score of 3 or better on a scale of 1 to 5; another 30 percent for a score of 4; and 2 percent require a score of 5. Eight institutions, including the California Institute of Technology, refuse to use AP for credit or placement, according to the Board, the New York City-based organization that runs that program.
Advantage Is Uncertain
Twenty-two states have adopted policies guaranteeing that dual-enrollment credits be accepted by colleges, up from 15 in 2008. With dual credit, high school students are taking college-level courses either at a nearby college campus or in their own high school with credentialed instructors.
The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board reported that high school students in the study who took dual-enrollment courses completed college degrees in 4.6 years, compared with five years for their peers who did not take college courses in high school.
Likewise, a study released by the College Board in January found that AP exam-takers were more likely than their demographically and academically matched peers to graduate on time in four years.
"We do see cost savings as an incredible value and benefit of AP," said Trevor Packer, the senior vice president of AP and instruction at the College Board. "But the cost savings may come from earning your degree in four years, rather than four-and-a-half or five."
Earlier research by Kristin Klopfenstein, the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, reported that with the exception of students who take a very large number of AP courses, the probability that an AP student will graduate from college in less than four years or exactly four years is indistinguishable from that of a similar student who does not take AP.
The College Board does not "trumpet" the message that AP equals early graduation, but the experience can allow students to take more advanced coursework, pursue a double major, add a minor, or have the flexibility to study abroad, Mr. Packer said.
The International Baccalaureate, with U.S. regional offices in Bethesda, Md., and programs in 830 U.S. high schools, doesn't exist for the purpose of getting students college credit, said Drew Deutsch, the IB regional director for the Americas, although many colleges do award it. The IB experience, with its emphasis on critical thinking, is about better preparing students for college work and setting them apart in admissions, he said.
"For a student who is experiencing the educational and social benefits of college life," said Mr. Deutsch, "who would want to depart early if they can financially afford it?"
Policies around the granting of college credit for AP coursework have fluctuated more as the total number of students taking AP exams has doubled over the past decade, growing from 846,000 in 2005 to 1.5 million today. Each year, 6 percent of AP credit policies are modified, balancing between allowing for more credit or less, according to the College Board.
In general, Mr. Packer said, those institutions that are open to accepting credit are trying to attract students, while the more-restrictive ones want students to have most of their academic experience on campus.
Last year, Dartmouth College announced it would no longer award credit for AP, saying it wanted students to take courses with its faculty on campus to the greatest extent possible. The policy change has not hurt application volume, and it will be formally reviewed in three years.
About half the AP students surveyed this year by the College Board said they'd be less likely to apply to a college or university that didn't give credit for AP exam scores. About 70 percent of respondents said that earning college credit while in high school was the main reason to take an AP course. Other factors were to "increase my chances of college admission" (62 percent) and to build skills needed in college (54 percent).
It falls on the shoulders of students to figure out colleges' credit-granting policies, said Ms. Klopfenstein of the University of Northern Colorado.
"I don't think schools are trying not to be transparent. There just is no clearinghouse or central place," she said. "Even within a university, you have to go to every department. That's the real challenge—portability."
This is an abridged version of an article originally published by Education Week on December 9, 2014. Reprinted with permission from Editorial Projects in Education.