When Tosin Williams, a biology and chemistry teacher at a charter high school in Los Angeles, learned that one of her students wanted to take the Advanced Placement exam, she did something not all teachers do. She paid the $89 fee for the test out of her own pocket. The administration at her high school didn’t require her to do this. The student probably could have scrounged up the money. But for her, it was worth it.
“For these kids to want to go that extra step to take a test like this, these are the students that [teachers] are happy to help anyway,” says Williams.
More than 2.2 million students took an AP exam during the 2012-2013 school year, according to the College Board, the organization that created the AP program. That’s the largest number since the test was first piloted in the 1950s and nearly double the numbers from a decade ago.
With the AP program, high school students get a feel for the rigors of a college-level course, concluding with an exam. With a successful exam score in a subject like chemistry or U.S. history, most colleges allow students to earn credit for a college course, waiving a prerequisite they might otherwise have to take. But at $89 each, these tests don’t come cheap.
“The cost of the exam is prohibitive to students, but indirectly so,” says Williams.
At her school, Williams says students offer many excuses to avoid taking the test rather than discussing the expense. Excuses like ‘nobody really takes the test,’ ‘I don’t know what it is,’ or ‘my school doesn’t really need it.’
She says students in her school district, many of whom are African-American or Latino and come from low-income families, are already at a disadvantage — even before they’ve applied to a single college. They may not have the same resources available to students found only 20 miles away. Williams says some neighboring schools don’t offer AP classes because teachers aren’t available to teach the courses. Many students think that they are required to take an AP class in order to register for the test itself. And there are a host of socioeconomic factors at play that students must face.
Whether it’s groupthink, social pressures, or financial burdens, Williams says students at her school downplay the test, potentially decreasing their ability to get accepted into a top-tier college. Only 20 or so students at her school took an AP exam last year.
“They’re not interested in being competitive,” says Williams.
To increase the enrollment of African-American, Latino, and Native American students in AP courses, the College Board recently launched the “All In” campaign. The campaign asks educators across America to pledge to review the master schedule at their school or district to ensure that underrepresented students are enrolled in AP courses.
But make no mistake about it, Williams says, the AP program is a way to generate revenue for the College Board. There is a profit made on these exams, she says.
Overall, the College Board brings in more than $750 million a year, with the AP program just one of many resources, tools, and services provided by the company. As a business, it’s not cheap to develop and administer those tests.
“A test is not just worth the paper it’s printed on,” says Amy Hollingsworth, a former high school biology teacher who conducts education research at the University of Akron.
The reason tests like the AP exam are so expensive, Hollingsworth says, is because they are so labor intensive to make. Before the test is even administered, education experts must design and test the exam, which probably accounts for the biggest costs. There are discipline experts, curriculum experts, childhood development experts, language experts, test creation experts, statistics experts, and teachers all contributing to the creation of the exam.
“[There are] exam proctors who need to be paid. The people who print the test, under high security, need to be paid. The people who ship the test need to be paid. Is it fair of anyone to question why tests cost money?” says Hollingsworth.
To help low-income students pay for the AP exam, the College Board has a fee-reduction program. Some states offer additional fee reductions through federal and state grants. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $28.8 million in grants to 42 states to cover a portion of the fees charged to low-income students.
For some students, though, the aid is not enough. At a reduced fee, the exam costs about $28. But the AP is just one of many exams students hoping to go to college must take — and there are other costs to factor in.
There are preparation course fees and tutors to pay, if parents aim to give their kid a leg up on the competition. There are costs for extracurricular activities, which help students appear more well-rounded in their college applications. There are other exams to pay for — $51 for the SAT (more if you’re taking a subject test) and $36.50 for the ACT (the no writing version). And by the time you add up application and entrance fees — parents are out of hundreds or thousands of dollars well before their child steps onto a college campus. Even applying for financial aid can cost money (though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is indeed free).
“Kids with means are definitely at an advantage,” says Heidi Waterfield, an educational consultant.
Wealthy students can not only afford tutors to help them raise their exam scores, but they can also take tests multiple times. Kids from affluent families can attend expensive, highly specialized camps during the summer to help them gain critical skills and don’t have the same economic burdens lower-income students face.
“That gives advantages to kids in ways that are subtle,” says Waterfield.
Waterfield would like the College Board to shift to a graduated payment scale for tests like the AP, so that families pay what they can afford. For low-income families who don’t have the money to hire a coach or tutor, she says students should take advantage of free online courses, borrow test books from the library, attend free workshops or programs conducted by local nonprofits, and look into vouchers or reduced-fee programs.
While students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have the same resources as other kids, Williams says she hopes to change the mentality of her students to make them more competitive. In the grand scheme of things, the $89 fee for an AP test is not that big of a deal, she says, but changing students’ minds about where they can go for school and what they can do is.
“These kids already face situations that are unfair,” says Williams. “But I hope they do their best to find a way to get around all their obstacles.”