AP vs. Dual Enrollment: Which is Better?

School is starting up again across the country, and many high school students are faced with the opportunity (and dilemma) of choosing whether to take an AP or dual enrollment class. Both could earn a student college credit, which might mean big savings on a college degree. But is one better than the other?

The short answer is that both are good options that show a willingness to take on challenging coursework and potentially earn college credit. As to which is better, it really does depend on individual circumstances and there is no one-size fits all answer, but there are some important differences. To better answer this question, let’s start by understanding the two options:

AP stands for Advanced Placement, a program created by the College Board in 1955 offering college-level courses and end of course examinations for high school students. There are currently over 30 AP courses to choose from, and the fee for each AP exam is $94 (there are fee reductions and subsidies for students with financial need). U.S. colleges may offer placement and course credit to students who score well on the AP exams (use this tool to find which schools offer placement or credit). Placement means that a good AP score might allow a student to bypass introductory courses, such as Spanish 101.

The AP exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, and usually a score of 3 or higher is required to earn college credit (note that a grade is not assigned or counted towards the college GPA if the credits transfer). Also, while many U.S. high schools offer AP courses, ANY student may take an AP exam, regardless of whether they participated in the associated AP course. This means that home-schooled students and students at schools that do not offer AP courses have the same opportunity to take the exams.

Dual enrollment, also referred to as dual credit, allows high school students to take classes at a local college and potentially earn both high school and college credit. Colleges vary in whether they accept dual enrollment credit, so your best bet is to research a school’s credit policy beforehand. Dual enrollment courses represent real college credit, so the grades earned will be part of a student’s academic record. This college credit doesn’t come for a single exam at the end of the school year (like with AP courses), rather a student needs to earn a grade of C or higher in the class. The dual enrollment course itself may be taken physically at a local college with classmates who are college students, or it may be conducted online or right at a student’s high school with other high school students.

So, which is better?

A student who takes either AP or dual enrollment courses (and even both!) show a willingness to take on rigorous curriculum, which is a plus for college admissions if you do well. If you are deciding between the two, here are some important distinctions:

The Case for AP: AP courses and exams are standardized (meaning the courses meet certain academic criteria and everyone takes an exam of equal rigor), while dual enrollment courses do not follow standard curriculum. As such, dual enrollment courses may be more variable depending upon the course and school where it is offered, and this means a college to which a student applies later may not be able to judge the rigor and therefore decline giving credit. More selective colleges accept high AP scores for credit and placement than dual enrollment.

The Case for Dual Enrollment: Dual enrollment course can be well regarded when of a higher level than that offered by AP courses in the high school, such as courses in upper level mathematics. Also, dual enrollment can offer a unique opportunity to take a college level course, with all the benefits that this type of academic challenge entails. Dual enrollment credits are likely to transfer to in-state colleges (though not guaranteed), and can transfer to outside colleges on a case-by-case basis. Dual enrollment can also be a good option for those students who don’t perform well or feel comfortable with success hinging on a single high-stakes test.

Another overall consideration for students at schools with weighted GPAs is whether an A in an AP course is the same as an A in a dual enrollment course.

We’ve created a summary chart of the different features here. Let us know what you decide and if you have any questions!

AP Dual Enrollment
Curriculum based on Standard AP course College course
School level of course High school (advanced) College
Credit earned based on AP exam score Passing course
Do colleges accept credits? Varies by school, usually a score of 3 or higher is required Varies by school (may be more difficult at out-of-state colleges)
Documentation needed for credit College Board AP score report Official college transcript
Is a grade assigned when the credit is transferred (does it affect college GPA?) No grade Yes
Cost Exam fee, score report Tuition (may be waived or reduced), official transcript

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