More students are taking AP exams, which don’t come cheap

The growth of AP tests in the U.S.

A new report shows the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams has nearly doubled in the last decade. At $89 a pop — though a low-income subsidy is available — the millions of tests add up to a lot of revenue for the College Board, the non-profit that runs the AP program.

Those revenues are rising as more and more students and parents come to see AP classes as vital to getting into college in an increasingly competitive admissions environment.

The percentage of high school graduates from each state in 2013 that took an AP exam

Those who graduated high school before the last decade might be surprised to hear just how many AP classes today’s students take and how early they start them. North Carolina high school student Brooke Huang needed a moment to recall the all the AP classes she took, which included environmental science, art history, calculus AB and world history.

That was just her sophomore year; she’s taken plenty more AP classes since. The courses were previously a way for students to set themselves apart, but with college admissions increasingly competitive, many students feel they’re now potentially as important as the SAT, also run by the College Board. Testing fees can add up fast for families.

“If your son or daughter is taking more than one, you could be spending several hundred dollars,” says Andrea Morris, mother of a Maryland high school student. “That’s real money to many families.”

She knows other parents who set aside their tax refunds to pay test fees.

Revenue from the AP program is vital for the College Board, a company that brings in more than $750 million dollars a year overall. Senior vice president Trevor Packer hears the complaints from parents, but says testing is costly to run. He also says Board research shows families see the opportunity to earn college credit as a fair deal. And the College Board does reduce fees for low-income students.

“We haven’t seen that that $89 exam fee is a barrier for most students,” Packer says.

With a college degree more important than ever and AP classes widely seen as the path to great schools, more parents will be shelling out for their kids to take these tests. Future reports on AP tests may show higher numbers still.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.
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In New Jersey, I feel that the schools are using the AP classes as a substitute for classes that they should already being teaching because the school district is too busy trying to teach to the lowest possible denominator which is No Child Left Behind. As a result they offer to the brighter kids to "teach the test" for the AP courses. As parents you have no choice but to buy into this otherwise your children are sitting in a class learning the bare minimum to pass the NCLB test. Because most schools give a weighted grade for the advance courses the students often get A's on their report cards and are often let down when they do enter college. The students do not understand why they are doing so poorly in college because they always got A's. My son had more college credit from high school then from college before he dropped out.

I qualified for the low-income price in high school and took 6 AP tests, allowing me to start college with 35 credits and graduate a year early. I also had friends in high school who had to pay the $86 fee (what it was then) and started college with over 50 credits. This allowed them to pursue multiple bachelors degrees at once and potentially gave them time to do courses that would transfer for graduate degrees during their undergrad. Whether high school students pay the full price for tests or not, it leads to not just thousands of dollars in savings but to years saved as well, and the opportunity cost of going to college vs. working and saving money is lower. Programs like the low-income fee waiver and SC covering the exam cost make it possible for people for whom attending college seemed unimaginable (like myself) to not only get more out of college but graduate with less debt as well.

When I was in high school we were forced to take the test if we took the AP class, otherwise we didn't get the weighted grade point average from taking the harder coursework. Since the school received way more than they spent for administering those tests it really felt like we were buying the GPA in some courses where we didn't feel prepared for the test and knew we would do poorly.

I am currently a high school senior in New York. I have taken a total of 7 AP classes (psychology, spanish, statistics, european history, environmental science, english and american history) throughout my high school career. However the college I will be attending only allows me to receive credit for a maximum of 2 of these courses. It has become a hypocritical cycle of needing to take AP courses to get into a selective school, but not being able to use the credit from these classes once you get to the undergraduate school. Something in the system needs to change!

In South Carolina, the state picks up the tab for students' AP exams. Unless the student doesn't sit the exam; then the student pays. As a high schooler, we never thought twice about taking an AP class, even if it was a hard one. It's a great incentive for low-income honors students who wouldn't be able to afford to take the exams otherwise.

I attended a high school in South Carolina that paid for all of my AP exams. My AP coursework transferred to the Big 10 school that I attended and I was able to graduate in three years instead of four. Although I did get scholarship money for tuitition, I will never regret the money I saved on room and board by graduating in three years instead of four.

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