As AP course enrollment dips, Virginia students eye dual enrollment

By: - April 20, 2023 12:04 am

(Getty Images)

Callee Love, a student at William & Mary, is likely to finish her time at the university in two years, thanks to her Southwest Virginia high school offering dual enrollment courses, which allow high school students to earn college credits by taking college-level courses through their high school or community college. 

Dual enrollment “just really prepared me for the classes that I’d be taking here,” said Love. “I think if I had stuck with the regular high school curriculum, I wouldn’t have been as well prepared for a lot of these classes, with massive papers or writing crazy thesis statements and all of these crazy things. So it’s just been super beneficial.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration and lawmakers have supported expanding dual enrollment and career and technical education opportunities for students in Virginia. However, as more students in Virginia have signed up for dual enrollment courses, fewer students are taking Advanced Placement courses, which have traditionally been students’ primary opportunity to earn college credits.  

While dual enrollment dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has increased by 54% over the last 10 years. Around the same time, from 2019 to 2022, Virginia experienced a nearly 2% decrease in students enrolled in AP courses.

The total number of students participating in dual enrollment has grown over the past decade in Virginia. (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission)


Testing has dropped as well: According to the College Board, which administers AP tests, Virginia graduates who took an Advanced Placement exam during high school decreased by 2.3% over the last 10 years.

Data in an April College Board report also showed that the percentage of Virginia graduates qualifying for college credit on at least one AP examination had fallen from ninth in the nation last year to 11th. The Virginia Department of Education said Virginia ranked third in 2015. 

The Youngkin administration has been sharply critical of those declines. On April 5, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera attributed the drops to policy changes by prior administrations, which she blamed for lowering student expectations. She pledged to work with Lisa Coons, who became Virginia’s newest superintendent of public instruction Monday, on a strategy to “restore the performance of Virginia’s students in advanced courses” and expand opportunities for students to “pursue rigorous academic courses.”

AP 2022 Cohort National Report. (College Board)

Over the past two months, the administration has also questioned whether AP African American studies coursework under development aligns with the governor’s Executive Order No. 1 to “restore excellence in education by ending the use of divisive concepts, including critical race theory.” 

But some students and school leaders say the declines in student enrollment in AP courses are more closely linked to high-achieving students’ interest in dual enrollment and fluctuations in what AP exam scores colleges consider sufficient to obtain course credit.

Guidera has said despite the administration’s emphasis on career readiness and trade education, officials still encourage students to consider taking AP courses.

“It is possible to simultaneously expand opportunities for dual enrollment, career/technical education, and encourage students to excel in academics and AP courses,” said Guidera in a statement to the Mercury. “These goals are not mutually exclusive as we aim to equip Virginia’s students with a world class education, career readiness, and opportunities.”

Rising interest in dual enrollment

As students consider the pros and cons of Advanced Placement courses, some say they are also weighing them against dual enrollment courses.

Participation in the state’s dual enrollment program has increased by 54% since the 2012-13 school year, according to a December report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Approximately 42,000 Virginia students took one or more dual enrollment courses during the 2021-22 school year, with most courses taught on high school campuses.

“I think a lot of students and families in our city see added value by enrolling in dual enrollment courses over Advanced Placement,” said Bristol Virginia Public Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan. 

One reason students may choose dual enrollment over AP courses is cost. While school divisions and colleges pick up the tab for most, if not all, the costs of dual enrollment, many students must pay independently for AP exams. 

Furthermore, the fluctuating criteria set by colleges and universities for accepting AP exam scores as college credit can deter some students from taking AP courses. Some say dual enrollment provides more guarantees that credits will be accepted.

AP exams, usually taken in May, are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, according to the College Board. Many U.S. colleges grant credit for advanced placement scores of 3 and above.

However, minimum scores for specific coursework to provide credit can vary based on the school. For example, the minimum score for an AP biology credit at the College of William & Mary is a 5, compared to Averett University, whose minimum credit threshold is a score of 3. The minimum score for a U.S. history credit at Washington and Lee University is a 5, compared to Bridgewater College, which requires at least a 3. The College Board provides a web tool for students to determine if their scores would earn them credit or placement at various colleges and universities.  

When school divisions don’t have a large offering of AP courses, it makes it easier for students to decide between taking those classes or pursuing dual enrollment.

Love, the William & Mary student who is majoring in kinesiology and health, said Virginia High School in Bristol had limited AP course offerings that would support her aspirations of becoming an athletic trainer. She took more than a dozen college-level classes, earning more than 60 undergraduate credits before graduating from high school in May 2022.

Despite earning high grades in classes, Love said that taking dual enrollment classes was a good fit because she considers herself a poor test taker and was concerned about her results on the AP exams. 

She said dual enrollment classes allowed her to work in cadaver labs for her anatomy class during high school, which is something that her William & Mary pre-medicine peers never had an opportunity to do, and were less stressful than AP courses.

“I think more people are starting to understand that dual enrollment seems to be a better option,” Love said. “It was definitely a better option for me.”

Approaching AP courses 

Since Youngkin took office, his administration has pointed to declining pass rates and test scores as evidence that previous state education leaders lowered standards of excellence for students, specifically citing the Board of Education’s 2019 and 2020 decisions to reduce cut scores, the test scores used by the state to classify whether students are proficient or advanced in a given subject, and its 2017 change to school accreditation standards.

Guidera did not provide a specific, quantifiable bar for what success on statewide AP results would look like.

“Success would mean a greater number of students are prepared to benefit from access to more rigorous and college-level experiences and content, including through admission to our Governor’s schools, dual enrollment programs, and AP and [International Baccalaureate] courses,” she wrote in an email.

Coons said in a recent visit to one of Virginia’s schools that her initial priorities include examining how the state is preparing students for the workforce and ensuring that students are ready to learn.

“I’m excited to learn about what we are doing, what we need to be successful, and how to implement that work moving forward,” said Coons in department video published Tuesday.

Despite schools experiencing a growing interest in dual enrollment courses, some are also working on expanding other educational opportunities.

Lynchburg City Schools is one of a handful nationwide to pilot the AP African American studies coursework and will offer the class at a second high school next year. In 2023-24, the school system will also explore offering “Pre-AP” courses to eighth graders. The College Board says it provides Pre-AP courses to improve accessibility to all students and help them develop skills they’ll need if they take the classes in the future.

“We believe that we need to make systemic changes to our instructional programming so that we are proactive in our work to expose students to AP opportunities before they enter high school and early in their high school career,” said Sam Coleman, chief academic officer for Lynchburg City Schools. 

“While this is not the only answer to the recent downward trend in AP enrollment, it is one way to strategically increase enrollment in AP courses,” he said.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.