Written by: Glen Besterfield, PhD // Jul 12, 2019
Last updated: Jul 29, 2020
As University of South Florida’s (USF's) Dean of Admissions, I am often asked by students and their families about the relative benefits and challenges of acceleration programs, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and dual enrollment (DE). Choosing to enroll in AP, IB, DE, or another credit-by-examination program can save you time, save you money, help you accrue college credits, improve your chances of acceptance at your schools of choice, prepare you for the rigors of college academics, and raise your weighted GPA. Here is what I tell students and their parents: How to choose between AP, IB, and dual enrollment is a personal decision that depends on your learning style, your lifestyle, and your goals.
You Want to Complete Your Degree on Time (or Faster)
If you get a head start with any of the college acceleration mechanisms, you can easily graduate in four years or less. Dual enrollment, IB, and AP programs decrease your college workload and the cost for your family by earning credits in high school at no cost. Earning credits by equivalent means you don’t have to accrue as many college credit hours to graduate.
- My advice: Research the credit-equivalent policies at your target schools to make sure your credits-by-exam or dual-enrollment credits will count toward your degree.
Your High School Offers IB
I honestly think if you can do it, IB is the best college-preparatory program in the world. Although colleges do not necessarily weigh IB over AP or dual enrollment, they do want to know that you have taken the most rigorous coursework your school offers. If you attend an IB high school, I would suggest enrolling in a handful of IB courses, even if you do not want to commit to the IB Diploma program.
- My advice: Challenge yourself, but be rational. Start with pre-IB or one AP course during freshman or sophomore year. Even the most selective schools expect no more than 12 AP courses on an applicant’s transcript.
You Want to Do Extracurriculars (or Work After School)
Because it is so rigorous, the IB Diploma program could be a challenge if you also want to do yearbook or swim team or work a part-time job. Consider the commute, too. If the only IB school is an hour away, your extracurricular schedule could suffer. Instead of dedicating yourself to the IB Diploma, think about adding just a few IB or AP courses to your schedule.
- My advice: If you’re busy with extracurriculars or work, look into online dual-enrollment courses. An online college course sacrifices none of the academic rigor and you receive college credit, but it offers you flexibility (and no commute time), so you can maintain an active life apart from school.
You Love Exams
AP and IB students take an examination near the end of the school year to demonstrate mastery for each test subject area. Every college determines what it considers a passing score and how many credit equivalents they will award. For example, USF allows students to receive up to 45 semester hours of credit through examination. If you take an AP exam and earn a 3, USF gives you credit for one course at the university. A score of 4 or 5 is typically credit for one or two courses at USF. There are exceptions, such as AP Calculus: a 5 gives you credit for only one course at USF and does not exempt you from taking Calculus II.
For the first time, the AP exam in 2020 was administered as an at-home digital test as a protective measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The multiple-choice section was removed. The free-response sections went from four questions to one or two. Open books were permitted and the exam, shortened from four hours to less than an hour, could be taken on any device. College Board, which administers the test, said the response was overwhelmingly positive, with the majority of students finding the shorter test more manageable while prepping on their own during lockdown. Most colleges are honoring AP scores in this unconventional testing year.
Another acceleration program growing in popularity (although it has been the standard in the United Kingdom as Advanced Secondary levels (ASLs) and Advanced Levels (ALs) and its former territories for decades) is the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE). AICE also relies on an end-of-year exam for college credit. The coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of the May/June 2020 AICE exam, but the November 2020 series is scheduled as a normal on-site test.
Strong test-takers should also consider the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). It offers examinations for credit in 33 subject areas from English to history and social science to science and math to business. It is important to note that some universities do not accept AP, CLEP, or AICE for credit, and there are differences in the course credits they assign to IB exam results, so consult with your target schools to understand their policies on equivalents. Unfortunately for students in lockdown during spring and early summer 2020, CLEP testing was not available for delivery in a digital or remote format. Students who were not able to use their testing vouchers may re-register for a CLEP exam for the 2020-2021 school year. New vouchers are valid through June 30, 2021.
- My advice: If you shine on test day, enroll in the AP, IB, or AICE courses that interest you and give CLEP a try if your target schools offer credit-by-exam.
You Have Test Anxiety
If you do not want your college credit to depend upon how well you perform on an exam, sign up for dual enrollment (DE) where you are taking a university level course possibly offered through a local community college. Your college credit will be based on the grade you earned in the course, not on a single test. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the grade you earn counts toward your college GPA — it carries with you— so you do not want to perform poorly in the classroom. The GPA carry-over can also be good news, of course. If you do well in dual-enrollment classes, you could start your university career with a 4.0 and maybe 15 credit-hours or an entire semester completed.
- My advice: Keep your collegiate GPA solid and test anxiety at bay by choosing a dual-enrollment course in a subject you enjoy and in which you’re likely to excel.
You Want to Boost Your GPA
Depending on the university you attend if you earn an A in an AP, IB, dual enrollment, or AICE class, you will earn a weighted grade. For example, an A in AP European History earns a 5.0, not a 4.0. Honors classes also earn a bump up possibly by half of a point. It is often preferable to earn a B in an AP course than an A in a regular course, not only to elevate your GPA, but also to indicate to college admissions staff that you are challenging yourself. Unlike the other acceleration mechanisms, the CLEP exam does not influence your GPA in any way.
- My advice: Use the weighting system of AP, IB, AICE, and dual enrollment to your advantage by taking as many rigorous courses as you can while still maintaining mostly A’s and B’s.
You Have a Passion for a Particular Subject
AP and CLEP are the vehicles for you if you are driven by a deep interest in a specific subject. Although you can take the AP exam without completing the AP course, most students prepare for the exam by taking the class. CLEP, on the other hand, allows you to earn college credit for what you already know or have learned on your own.
AP offers 36 subject areas, ranging from 3-D Art and Design to World History. CLEP offers 33 subject areas, encompassing American Government to Calculus.
- My advice: Give it a shot. If you do well on the exam, you will earn college credit, keeping you on track to graduate on schedule.
You’re a Homeschool Student
Homeschoolers should consider three options to earn college credits:
- Dual enroll. In the state of Florida, students educated at home are eligible for free dual enrollment. If you live in another state, research the homeschool policy through your state’s Department of Education, or call your local college directly.
- Take CLEP tests in your top subject areas. You do not need to wait until your senior year to do so.
- Sit for an AP exam without taking the AP course first.
- My advice: I strongly advocate dual enrollment (although remember the GPA remains with you in college), but give all three options a try, including exams that charge a fee. If you pass, you could save thousands on tuition in the long run.
You’re on a Tight Budget
In the state of Florida, acceleration programs are free for public high school students. Students in other states, private school students, and international students might have testing fees. IB can be expensive because often the IB program is offered only at a private school. IB families can expect to pay both registration and examination fees, as much as $886, although some states offer a waiver for students with financial need. For the AP exam, some states, including Florida, waive the cost or reduce the fee for students with financial need, but the standard fee is $94 per exam ($124 for students abroad). Each CLEP exam is $89.
- My advice: Choose credit-earning options that have no fees. Dual enrollment is free in Florida, as are AP and AICE courses at public high schools. Still, these are challenging programs. Only 30 percent of Florida’s public high school graduates score a 3 or better on an AP exam, so if you have a limited budget, register for only your strongest subject exams.