One goal of my work at the University of Washington is to see students gain access to higher education and succeed in earning their degrees. One decade ago, our nation led the world in college graduation, but today we rank a disappointing 13th. There are many students throughout the U.S. who have the potential to enroll and complete their degrees, but too many lack access to the rigorous coursework that prepares them for success in college.
Advanced Placement courses and other rigorous curricula-based programs offer high school students the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college. On average, only half of all students nationally earn their bachelor’s degrees within five or six years, which is a great financial burden on students and their families. But students who earn qualifying scores on their A.P. exams more typically graduate within four years. These students are able to make the most of their time on campus — by pursuing a double-major or studying abroad without risking their ability to graduate on time.
Washington has made great strides to expand A.P. access to more students. In 2003, only 16 percent of the state’s public high school graduates took A.P., while 34 percent of graduates took A.P. last year. The percentage of graduates who earned A.P. exam scores of 3 or higher (scores typically required for college credit) rose from 10.4 percent a decade ago to nearly 21 percent in 2013.
Although we have made progress, the overall state-level picture still concerns me. Forty-seven percent of Washington’s public high school graduates in the class of 2013 either never took an A.P. course in a subject for which they had demonstrated the potential to succeed, or they attended a school that did not offer a course in the subject. This pattern is particularly prevalent in lower-resourced schools.
Some initiatives are already in place to help expand access to A.P. courses. For example, with the support of a grant from Google, 15 schools throughout the state of Washington were able to offer new A.P. math and science courses this fall, with the goal of encouraging underrepresented minority and female students who demonstrate strong academic potential to enroll in and explore these areas of study and related careers. The University of Washington has also started work with the College Board to increase A.P. access for more students within the rural Yakima Valley Schools. This program will inform educators about the benefits of A.P. and train teachers how to start new A.P. courses in their schools.
However, we could still make better use of tools that already exist to encourage more students to enroll in A.P. For example, the A.P. Potential web-based tool allows schools to identify students with good potential for A.P. courses based on PSAT exam results. This tool should be used as much as possible in Washington schools to improve participation by students who have already demonstrated the ability to be successful in A.P. courses.
Rigorous programs such as A.P. help give our students the boost they need to build successful academic futures. But without proper access, many of our students will not have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Philip Ballinger is associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington. He has more than 25 years of university admissions and enrollment experience.