Columns, Opinions

Friedman ’19: Time to revisit our AP exam policy

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Congratulations to the 2,722 students — of a record 32,724 applicants — admitted to Brown for fall 2017. It is no surprise that Brown (which accepted a record-low 8.3 percent of applicants this year) and the other Ivy League universities have become increasingly selective over the past decade, as many Ivies are refusing to increase their class sizes despite rising domestic and foreign demand for an elite undergraduate education. It is also no surprise that Ivy-hopeful high school students continue to engage in a brutal arms race to take the highest possible number of Advanced Placement courses, both to improve their weighted GPAs and to look more appealing to elite universities. The number of high school students participating in the AP program has steadily increased over the last 60 years. Yet, despite its pervasiveness in the admission process, AP classes are increasingly being dismissed by elite universities for course credit.

Many universities are now reconsidering their AP credit policies in light of renewed debate over the rigor of the AP program. Hakan Tell, associate professor of classics at Dartmouth, told the New York Times in 2013, “The psychology department got more and more suspicious about how good an indicator a 5 on the AP Psych exam was for academic success.” As a result, Dartmouth began requiring students requesting credit to take a condensed Psych 1 final. The results: “Of more than 100 students who had scored a 5 on the AP exam, 90 percent failed the Dartmouth test.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the biology and chemistry departments at Penn have expressed similar concerns that “students who used their AP scores to skip introductory courses fared worse in upper-division classes than those who took the full sequence at Penn because they weren’t as well-prepared.”

Colleges reacted differently to the findings. In 2014, Dartmouth began refusing to count AP credits across the board for graduation. Penn, on the other hand, still accepts AP credits for class credit if the student earns a 5 on the AP exam. Harvard is still using the “advanced standing” system it established before the recent wave of studies, but public statements by Harvard administrators seem to contradict actual university policies: Although William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, called AP tests among the “best predictors” of success in 2009, Harvard still refuses to accept any APs unless students have taken a minimum of eight AP classes.

Brown was an early proponent of this trend: It is one of the few schools that has traditionally refused to provide class credit for APs outright. According to Brown’s website, “Advanced Placement exam scores are not eligible for course credit.” Though students may “enroll in higher-level courses … AP credit will not increase your course credit total.” In other words, students have to stay at Brown for the full four-year term, even if they could meet graduation requirements early by utilizing AP credits. The Herald has criticized similar Brown policies that prevent accelerated graduation in the past, thus far to no avail. In preventing students from graduating early despite possessing AP course credits that fulfill graduation requirements, Brown maintains the strictest AP credit policy in the Ivy League. Though Brown is definitely not alone, it seems counterintuitive that the Ivy League’s supposedly most progressive university enforces the Ivy League’s least progressive course credit policy.

It is obvious that this policy levies unfair financial burdens on low-income students, as The Herald’s editorial (“Remove barriers to early graduation,” Oct. 13, 2016) stated last fall: “Taking an extra year to earn a degree of equal merit and hiring appeal is a luxury that some students cannot afford.” We live in an era when college is becoming less and less affordable, and the value of a college education — relative to the debt incurred to acquire it — is being called into question. According to CNNMoney, the average student leaves college with $34,000 of debt, which is 70 percent more than it was 10 years ago.  Coupled with Brown’s policy that prevents accelerated graduation, the University’s current AP policy basically mandates that all students must pay the University $272,424 within four years ($68,106 annually) in order to graduate. This requirement strains the financial aid system and is unfair to low-income students who shouldn’t be forced to take extra classes to satisfy a purely administrative requirement.

It is also hypocritical for Brown to place such a value on APs in the admission process while simultaneously dismissing them in the academic process. This can create unprecedented amounts of stress for high school students: In New Jersey’s West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, for example, 68 percent of AP students “reported feeling stressed about school ‘always or most of the time.’” Yet, despite the amount of attention the APs receive at the high school level, the curriculum is almost trivialized at the college level. At elite universities, the AP system has become just another proxy for admission, not a legitimate way to earn credit for college classes. Brown, Harvard, Dartmouth, Duke and other universities that maintain similar policies have, in a way, perverted the original intent of the AP curriculum — to give exceptional high school students a chance at more challenging coursework — by acknowledging it exclusively in the admission process.

Brown’s policy also runs against the open curriculum and the idea of a liberal education. Accepting APs would allow for more flexibility in selecting courses, which is one of the main reasons why students choose Brown in the first place. According to Brown’s website, “the open curriculum ensures you great freedom in directing the course of your education.” This seems facetious in light of the underlying fact that the “academic journey” of many Brown students is hampered by its restrictive AP policies.

It is clear that the AP system is in need of profound change to better prepare high school students for college-level classes. But since the College Board has been unsuccessful in revising the AP curriculum in the past, universities must adapt to the current reality. Given the many advantages of accepting AP curricula for course credit, Brown should ease its AP course credit policies so that its academic requirements are as liberal as its ethos.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to