COLUMBIA — College — just seeing the word can create excitement or stress because entrance to an university can lay the path for future adventures. The preparation it takes to get there doesn't begin or end with college entrance exams. Advanced Placement classes, available at Columbia's high schools, offer students the opportunity to start earning college credit before they even receive their acceptance letter.
Enrollment in AP classes increased this year at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, an increase that mirrors the statewide increase of 14 percent. Douglass High School, an alternative school for students struggling with traditional structure, does not offer AP courses but its students can take the courses at Hickman and Rock Bridge.
Columbia College, MU and Stephens College all accept AP credit but all have different equivalences for incoming scores.
Rock Bridge has nearly 1,000 students taking AP courses this school year, 265 more than last year. The exact number of students taking AP at Hickman is not known. There are 800 enrollments in AP courses, which Director of Guidance Ann Landes said illuminates the fact that students are taking more than one AP course. In spring 2008, 358 students took the AP test at Hickman — up 36 students from 2007.
Two students from the Columbia Public School District took AP classes through the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program in 2007-08, the program's first year. The state-sponsored program offers online classes for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and includes nine AP classes for students to take.
The increase in AP enrollment can be attributed to two factors: saving money and seeking a challenge.
Rock Bridge senior Samantha Eiffert believes it's the option to gain college credit for much less money that is driving more students to AP.
"I think it's ridiculous how much people pay (for college)," Eiffert said. She advised students to "take advantage (of AP) while you can."
Hickman AP biology teacher Pamela Close said many of her students say saving money before college is a reason for taking AP courses.
"Many plan to obtain double majors," she said. "And any way to reduce the number of entry-level general ed courses — and therefore keep college expense and time on campus at a manageable level — is beneficial."
Close said this year her class has 19 students but in the past has had anywhere between 16 and 48 students. Conflicts with other AP classes such as physics or calculus affect enrollment, she said
At the end of the year, students can pay $88 to take a test that could count for up to six college-level credit hours. However, students have to score at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 in order for colleges to offer credit. For some programs, the score has to be higher.
All low-income students are eligible for reduced-fee testing, and as of Aug. 31, the state has offered to pay a portion of the math and science AP tests, said Landes at Hickman. Before 2005, the state paid the testing fees for students who scored proficient or higher in subject tests of the Missouri Assessment Program. Landes said that the AP enrollment numbers at Hickman drop somewhat when students hear the state cuts or eliminates funding for AP tests.
While earning college credit is an incentive for many, Matt Webel, department chairman of language arts at Rock Bridge, believes some students enroll in AP to take the toughest courses possible.
"More students are convinced that they can take and excel in challenging courses," said Webel, who also teaches AP world studies. "Teachers and counselors deserve credit for helping kids know that they are smart enough to take AP classes."
He said the world studies class has a record enrollment of 71 students this year. Two years ago the class had 48.
"Many of the students are forced to challenge themselves for the first time," he said. "There are no easy A's in AP world studies. Students get the grade they earn, and it comes with hard work and academic achievement."
Eric Rahn, a Rock Bridge senior, said he used AP coursework to learn more in a shorter amount of time.
"I wanted to challenge myself and be around students who felt the same," Rahn said. "(AP classes) are a better learning environment because everyone wants to learn and earn better grades. I didn't want to be around kids that didn't want to learn."
Rahn, who is taking four AP classes this year, said AP offers more rigorous coursework than non-AP honor classes.
In addition, Webel thinks students should look outside of the AP world for a chance to challenge themselves in an another arena. He said students should allow themselves to be challenged by extracurricular activities such as sports, band or theater.
"AP classes are just one delicious part of that smörgåsbord," Webel said.