What You Need to Know About Evaluating the Value of AP Exam Credits - College in 321

What You Need to Know About Evaluating the Value of AP Exam Credits

Written by Kathy deJong

April 5, 2022

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No college cost comparison is complete without considering Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment credits. Students who have taken advantage of these college-level courses can significantly reduce college costs or increase the value of a 4-year education by adding a major.

Many high school seniors and parents are looking at the college’s financial aid packages and trying to determine costs. College financial aid reports are not uniform, so making an apples-to-apples comparison is essential to distinguish free money (grants, scholarships, etc.) from loans. An often missed part of the financial/value equation is gaining a thorough understanding of the utilization of college credits. In this 5 step process, you’ll know how much those college credits are worth.

For brevity, we will use “AP” to represent the process for each type of possible college credit in this blog. 

Determine if there is a maximum number of AP credits/courses a college will accept.

So you took 13 AP courses/exams, and you think you’ve got a good jump on graduating from college early. Not so fast. Many colleges will have a maximum number of AP course credits they will accept. At Emory University in Atlanta, they will only apply APs for up to 12 credit hours of course work. This will most likely equal four college courses (each worth three credit hours), not 13 courses.

Research which AP exam scores have earned you credit at EACH college.

Students earn college credit through the AP or IB final exam or, in the case of a dual enrollment course, final grade. Every college has its threshold for an acceptable score/grade for credit. By researching each college’s website, students can determine what score they need on each AP course to receive college credit. 

Here is an example of the College of Charleston’s AP/IB credit page

Not all colleges will offer credit for a given AP course. Also, depending on your AP exam score, the number of credit hours and courses you place out of may vary. The more credits you receive and classes you place out of MAY reduce the courses needed to graduate. But it isn’t that simple.

Determine how the credits can be applied at EACH college.

It’s not enough to learn that you’ve earned college credit by getting an accepted score. You also need to understand if you can use those credits toward graduation. In general, there are three ways to apply AP credits: 1) To meet core or required curriculum requirements, 2)To meet the course requirements for a major/minor 3) To fulfill general elective requirements. Each college will have its own rules to apply AP credits. If they can’t be applied to the core curriculum or your designated major, how many can you use as elective credit? Students should also consider using them to obtain a double major or a minor. The good news is that at some colleges, like the College of Charleston, some AP credits can be double-counted toward the core curriculum AND a major! 

Estimate the number of usable AP credits 

You can now ballpark the number of AP credit hours utilized to complete your degree. For example:

College Acost per semester – $17,000 or $136,000 for 4 years

Number of credit hours required to complete a degree: 120 credit hours

Number of credit hours earned and applied to a degree: 18 credit hours

Remaining credit hours required to graduate: 102 credit hours


College B – cost per semester – $15,000 or $120,000 for 4 years

Number of credit hours required to complete a degree: 120 credit hours

Number of credit hours earned and applied to a degree: 6 credit hours

Remaining credit hours required to graduate: 114 credit hours


Just quickly looking at costs, College B would appear less expensive… but let’s factor in AP credits.


Now you can make some decisions that can help you reduce the cost of college or add value to your degree with an additional major or minor! 

Students need to average about 15 credit hours per semester for eight semesters to graduate in four years. In the above example, the student has earned 18 credit hours from AP exams. This is equivalent to an entire semester’s worth of classes! 

Now let’s look at the costs taking into consideration AP credits.

College A

With 18 credit hours of AP credit, we can reduce our time in college by a semester.

$17,000 per semester x 7 semesters (instead of 8) =  $119,000

At College B, it may not be possible to finish in seven semesters without taking more than 15 credit hours per semester. This may not be prudent for all students, so assuming a total cost of $120,000 for eight semesters is warranted.

As a result of evaluating the credits and use of AP credits, we now know that College A may be a lower-cost option by saving $17,000. But that’s just the direct cost savings. A student can enter the workforce faster and reap the earnings of six months of work by graduating early. For this example, let’s say a student can earn $30,000. By choosing the more expensive College A, the student may actually be gaining $47,000 that they will not be receiving if they chose College B with the lower cost of attendance!

There’s more! Suppose a student wants to add value to their college experience rather than graduating early. They may choose to take on additional coursework and get a second degree, a double major, or a minor. More education and skills generally translate to higher career earnings.

If, after doing your research, you want to validate your assumptions on how credits are applied, the Office of the Registrar is usually the department that can help. However, many colleges will not evaluate the transfer of credits until a student is enrolled, and the rules are always subject to change.

While the research and calculations can take some time and effort, students and parents should not overlook the use of college credits earned in high school in the college decision-making process. They represent real money! 

College in 3-2-1 provides comprehensive college preparation services for high school students including high school course selection, college research and list development, application assistance, essay consultation, and financial aid, extra-curricular, and summer enrichment counseling. Learn more here.

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