- In 2023, a record number of low-income students took Advanced Placement exams.
- The College Board made about $500 million in revenue as a result.
- The problem? A sizable number of those low-income students didn’t pass.
For high school students across the United States, Advanced Placement courses offer a curriculum that not only exposes them to university-level work but can give them credits for college should they score high enough on end-of-course exams.
For many students from low-income and working-class backgrounds, the benefits of AP coursework can be the difference between saving tuition money from earned credits or forgoing college due to a lack of funding.
For the College Board, which created and administers the AP program, increasing access to AP coursework has been a significant part of the organization’s work over the past 20 years. And part of that push by the AP has been to increase the number of low-income students taking courses and exams, which requires a significant educational and financial investment.
However, as the College Board has pitched more schools to sign on to AP coursework and register students for exams, the performance levels for low-income test-takers has not dramatically shifted from the early 2000s: 60 percent of students from this demographic group only earned a 1 or 2 out of a possible 5 on the exam, which precludes them from earning college credit for the AP course.
In 2023, 38 percent of all test-takers scored a 1 or 2, with low-income students posting higher failure rates. Yet taxpayers this year shelled out at least $90 million to pay for AP exams that a sizable percentage of students didn’t pass, according to The New York Times.
The Times, based on its own analysis of College Board files and local education budgets, said that the organization receives about $100 million each year in public money for AP exams. In response to The Times, the College Board said that in 2023, it had received at least $90 million from the federal government to cover exam fees.
In tax filings, the College Board stated that it took in roughly $5 million to $6 million in direct government funding each year, according to the newspaper.
‘The best stuff in education’
At $98 per exam for US test-takers, AP fees bring in a lot of money to the organization, and the push to enroll more low-income students into the program comes at a time where revenue from the SAT — the College Board test that in recent years has become optional for students applying to a swath of institutions — has sharply declined.
The Times reported that from 2019 to 2022, SAT revenue dropped from $403.6 million to $289.2 million, a reflection of the test being less ubiquitous in the college admissions process.
The College Board stands firmly behind its AP push, though, pointing to equity and the need to expand education opportunities for students who may not have been initially on a college coursework track.
“What if the best stuff in education were not just for the best to distinguish themselves — but could engage a much broader set of kids?” College Board chief executive David Coleman said during a podcast earlier this year. “Why are we holding it for some?”
The College Board, reflecting on its own analysis, stated that AP coursework boosts students across the board, independent of their respective scores on the exam.
The organization has made this argument as AP has morphed into its financial crown jewel. The program in 2022 brought in nearly $500 million in revenue.
While the AP expansion has offered more opportunities to a broad range of students, questions remain regarding the actual preparedness of low-income students, as they often lack the funding to pay for expensive test preparation courses and may not have been exposed to as much high-level work as their upper-income peers before high school.
In 2023, a record 1.1 million students from low-income households took AP exams, per The Times. It’s a sharp increase from 2003 when 153,000 low-income students took the exams.
Overall, 5.2 million students sat down for AP exams in 2023, a more than threefold increase from 2002, when 1.6 million students took the exams.
Trevor Packer, who heads the Advanced Placement program, told The Times that the number of students taking on the intense AP curriculum and the push to find students who can perform well in the classes more than makes up for the low scores from many test-takers.
In a statement, the College Board said that the money it receives from the government — about 18 percent of its overall revenue — was “minimal” compared to its operating revenue.
“We believe these are worthwhile investments in preparing all students for their futures,” the organization said. “We recognize that all students are not yet receiving equitable preparation for AP coursework and that such work requires addressing inequities that occur years prior.”