UNC System Implements Standardized AP Credit Policy

Many incoming first-year students have just gotten one step closer to graduating from the UNC System. 

As of July 2019, the new System-wide Advanced Placement (AP) credit policy has come into effect. With this new policy now firmly in place, a score of “three” or higher has become the across-the-board standard for credit throughout the UNC System, except in cases when a course has been granted an exception by an institution’s board of trustees. No matter what UNC System institution they choose to attend, now all students seeking college credit through AP exams are on equal footing.

Why is this change so significant? Because countless graduating high school seniors have just earned their first college credit, without even setting foot on campus for the first time, and degree efficiency at every UNC System institution has just improved significantly.

“Our new AP Credit Acceptance policy is vital to the UNC System’s ongoing work to put higher education within reach of every qualified North Carolinian,” said UNC System Interim President William Roper. “This new policy will encourage more high school students across the state to get a head start on their college careers. It will make completing a UNC System education, at any one of our institutions, faster and more affordable.”

Creating More Pathways and Improving Efficiency

Prior to this coming academic year, rules on accepting AP scores varied across the UNC System. Ten universities granted college credit to students who earned a three on the popular US history AP exam; the remaining six universities considered four the cut off. A score of three on the English literature and composition exam was the cutoff for credit at nine institutions, while two institutions required a score of five. Adding to the confusion was the fact that acceptance standards often varied from department to department, even within the same institution.

For prospective students exploring college options who had scored threes on the history and the English exams, this variability undermined incentives to consider the full range of possibilities available in the UNC System. Institutions requiring fours automatically looked less enticing. In some cases, students shopped around, looking for college options outside the UNC System that would reward them for their hard work in AP courses.

With this new policy, prospective students will benefit from greater transparency and now find more doors open to them. No longer will the difference between a three and a four on an AP exam be a determining factor as they decide where they want to attend school. Students can focus on what and where they want to study, with less worry about whether or not their AP courses will fulfill a general education requirement or count toward their major degree. 

The new AP policy is aligned with the UNC System’s Strategic Plan, which aims to increase access, affordability, and degree completion. Research suggests that students who earn college credit prior to enrolling in a university are more likely to graduate and do so in a timely fashion. 

Making the policy consistent across the UNC System will enhance the University’s efforts to ensure that all North Carolinians, including those from rural counties and low-income families, have “access to success.” By encouraging and rewarding college-level work in the high school classroom, this new policy will level the playing field, making it easier for everyone in the state to transition from high school into the institution of their choice. Data show that students from rural counties and those from families earning less than $60,000 per year could receive credit for up to 45 percent more courses than they did under current policy.  

This new policy will also improve completion rates, helping students stay on track toward graduation. Research suggests that students who earn college credit prior to enrolling in college are more likely to graduate and do so in a timely fashion.

A Return On Investment

North Carolina has invested heavily in AP exams as a strategy for improving student success in higher education. To incentivize high school students to test the waters with advanced coursework, every year the General Assembly covers the full cost of every AP exam administered in the state.

The University’s new AP credit policy dramatically increases the return on the state’s investment.

In 2016-17 alone, the state spent more than $12 million on AP exams. In that same year, UNC System students missed out on 13,950 course credits under the existing policy. Under the uniform policy, the UNC System would have granted credit for 40 percent more courses that year. With the new policy in place, students and taxpayers will save on tuition and appropriations instead of paying to cover the cost of University instruction that revisits the same material students have already learned.

“Each year, the state of North Carolina invests millions of dollars to cover the cost of AP exams for students in the hopes that those credits will shorten the path to a college diploma,” said Andrew Kelly, UNC System senior vice president of Strategy and Policy. “This change is significant because it will encourage high school students to earn their first college credits before they even set foot on campus, making a degree more affordable and helping more students graduate in a timely fashion.”

As students move through the University more efficiently, they will enter the workforce more quickly, fully prepared to succeed in and contribute to our state’s growing economy.

Streamlining for Student Success, Preserving Academic Rigor

Data-backed evidence shows that this strategy to improve graduation efficiency will do so without diminishing academic excellence.  

AP courses are designed to give students an opportunity to experience the intellectual rigor of a college-level class well before they arrive on a university campus. Because the state pays for the tests, AP courses offer students a chance to earn free college credits. System Office staff fully anticipate that the uniform acceptance rates will drive up demand for AP courses across the state, which means that more students will be practiced and prepared to succeed in the UNC System by the time they graduate from high school.

More than that, the tests themselves are scored to reflect how student success is measured at the college level. An AP exam is graded on a scale of one to five, with a five reflecting the grade equivalent of an A+ at the college level. The new System-wide minimum score of three represents work that is “qualified” and which would earn a grade equivalent in the range of B- to C.

Studies have directly compared the performance in upper-level classes between AP students and their peers. These studies indicate that those who received AP credit for the feeder course performed as well or better than those who did not have AP credit.

In addition, the new AP policy is more clearly aligned with the UNC System’s standards for accepting transfer credits from other institutions. Under the statewide transfer agreement between the UNC System and the NC Community College System, UNC System institutions grant credit for course grades of C or better earned in community college courses. More broadly, a student admitted to a constituent institution may receive undergraduate credit for college-level work completed successfully at another institution of higher education. By this measure, a score of three on any AP exam meets these criteria.

Prospective students are encouraged to reach out to admissions offices for more information.

Imagine the thrill a prospective college student experiences when she comes home from school to find a letter from the AP Program notifying her that she has scored three or higher on her history exam. The UNC System’s new policy will amplify this feeling of triumph as she realizes that she has already received credit at any one of 16 universities and that she has improved her odds of graduating on time and with less debt.