High schools and others often promote AP, IB and dual credit classes as a way to save money on college, and for some students that’s certainly true. These classes have plenty of benefits other than saving money; however, I’m all about saving money on college so that is what I’m writing about.

AP, IB and dual credit classes can save students money on college if they are able to earn enough credit from these classes. There are several factors that might make this more or less likely, and of course ultimately it all depends on which college the student attends—information that’s not available at the time of deciding whether to take these classes.

One factor to consider is how colleges price tuition. Private schools typically price by academic term, regardless of how many classes the student takes. Public schools, which are more likely to have part-time students, generally price by credit up to a cutoff point of full-time equivalence. So a student who takes one less class in each of several terms due to having received AP credit will not actually save on tuition– and those who go below full-time status during a term may jeopardize their scholarship packages. The main way that students save on college costs is by accumulating enough credit to shorten their academic career by one or more terms. Public schools tend to be more likely to facilitate this. Private schools often limit the amount of credit granted, regardless of how many advanced courses the student took in high school. Still others give placement but no credit. Each school has its own policy; simply google “[school name] advanced placement credit” to learn your desired schools’ policies.

The other factor, which gets considerably less air time, is that many schools’ merit aid calculations are based on unweighted GPA. There are various reasons for this; one that is commonly cited by admissions officers is that there are too many different grading scales out there. So students who are less successful in advanced classes may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to merit aid.

My son is a textbook case of this. He took numerous advanced classes in high school, partly due to being tracked into them coming out of middle school and partly due to personal interest. However, he struggled in many of them due to the work load and ended up earning primarily Bs in his advanced classes, compared with As in his regular classes. He had about a 3.8 GPA in his regular classes, and below a 3.0 in his weighted classes. The end result was that his unweighted GPA was below 3.5. Here is his school’s scholarship matrix:

AZ Schol

Fortunately he did very well on the ACT which earned him a great scholarship at his college. However, had his unweighted high school GPA been 3.5, he would have received $2,000 more per year; had it been over 3.75 (as it was in his non-IB classes), he would have received an additional $12,000 per year in merit aid. In his case, taking challenging classes cost us somewhere between $8,000 and $48,000 over the next four years. The latter number is worth considerably more than one academic term. And this is leaving aside the frustration and lack of success that he experienced from not doing well in some of these classes.

My daughter, on the other hand, took a full IB/AP/dual credit course load. She still had to take her college’s placement tests in every subject area. (Had she taken AP or IB math, her exam would have satisfied the math placement; however, she took dual credit calculus which does not include a standardized exam.) She got credit for AP statistics and higher placements in most classes; however, her school allows a maximum of 3 courses to be taken “anywhere else” which includes credit for high school classes. An aside: she did not do the full IB diploma due to schedule conflicts. Every admissions person we asked said that while taking the courses was very important, doing the IB diploma was not a factor in admissions; of course, this is partly due to the diploma being earned well after admissions and acceptance decisions are finalized. However, all commented that the diploma was often a scheduling decision for students rather than an academic one.

My advice—wearing both the advisor and parent hats: If your student is interested in elite schools, they need to take every advanced class available to them just to have their application considered. If not, then they should limit their advanced classes to the subjects they are sufficiently passionate about to put in the work and earn the same grade they would get in an unweighted class.

And of course, don’t forget to budget for these tests: Most registration deadlines are before the student receives college acceptances so you have to pay for them regardless of whether you’ll get credit.