Like most things high school students agonize over—Facebook friends, woefully uncool parents—the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses students take probably matters much less than they think.
A recent study commissioned by the admissions office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals that, while taking up to five AP or IB courses in high school is likely to improve a UNC student’s freshman grade point average, taking more than 5 has no significant impact on his or her college GPA. In light of these findings, UNC plans to alter its admissions standards, no longer affording additional weight to applicants who boast an AP or IB course load greater than 5. The changes promise to take some of the stress off of already overextended high school students, and we urge Duke to follow UNC’s lead.
The study, and UNC’s decision to embrace its findings, may slow the AP arms race that plays out yearly in American high schools. Because college admissions criteria often dictate how high school students structure their academic lives, the conclusion reached by UNC’s admissions office—that an applicant’s stockpile of AP or IB courses does not necessarily reflect his or her preparedness for college—may discourage high school students from overstuffing their schedules with advanced courses and, consequently, ease the sometimes crippling stress of applying to college.
Although discouraging high school students from shouldering herculean AP or IB course loads may reduce applicant stress, neither the UNC study nor UNC’s modified admissions standards challenges the logic of credentialism. UNC still considers a certain number of AP or IB courses to represent a useful criterion for admission, encouraging high school students to view advanced courses not as opportunities to gain valuable knowledge and skills, but as necessary obstacles in the bruising fight for an acceptance letter. According to Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC, completing 5 AP or IB courses indicates that “You’ve jumped through the meaningful hoop.” Far from subverting the checklist approach to college admissions—in which the intrinsic value of high school activities is supplanted by their value as resume line items—the UNC admissions office continues to legitimize and reinforce it.
Although the study has prompted UNC to recalibrate its admissions standards, it might not reveal all that much. While some schools are awash with AP and IB courses, others offer far fewer, and, at these schools, even the most ambitious student may only be able to take 5 AP or IB classes. Given the disparity in the availability of AP and IB courses, the study may only reveal that students who take full advantage of their high school’s course offerings will perform better in college—a less-than-novel insight.
Even if the study does offer new information about the importance of high school courses, the competitiveness of college admissions will always induce ambitious students to overextend and overexert themselves. While we believe that Duke should adopt UNC’s data-driven approach in crafting its admissions policy, we doubt a minor recalibration of a college’s admissions criteria will temper the often unhealthy zeal with which high school students vie for admission.