Opportunities for rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities in high school do more than boost GPAs and add sparkle to students’ resumes. Students who take advanced classes are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in a four-year college, earn higher GPAs while there, and graduate in four years.

Whether high schools offer honors classes, Advanced Placement or AP classes, International Baccalaureate or IB classes, dual-enrollment classes, Project Lead The Way, Cambridge International, or other nationwide programs, these advanced courses provide far more rigorous learning opportunities than standard high school classes. While not all of these courses result in college credit, the ones that do can help students fulfill college requirements before leaving high school, potentially saving hundreds or thousands of dollars on college tuition.

Opportunities for success

High schools with the best track records of preparing students for postsecondary success provide advanced academic offerings and academically challenging extracurriculars, and they make those opportunities for advanced learning widely available across the student body. These opportunities expose students to more intellectually rigorous material, helping them acquire the skills they need to succeed in college. They also demonstrate to college admissions officers that a student is motivated and ready for college-level work.

Many studies show the value of advanced courses. A 2019 Loyola Marymount School of Education report found “students who completed IB courses seem to be more resilient than non-IB takers in terms of their freshman experience [and] in some cases [the] students suggested college was easier than their high school experience.” Another study by Mass STEM Hub of the one8Foundation determined students enrolled in Project Lead The Way (PLTW) coursework improved their MCAS scores in science and math, with students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds gaining the most benefit.

Academic clubs may also contribute to helping students become ready to succeed in college. A 2020 Milligan College paper that reviewed multiple studies and testimonials concluded, “there is a strong relationship between participants in academic clubs and academic achievement.” A meta-analysis from Brandon University in 2013 came to the same conclusion, summarizing, “participation in academic clubs yields higher academic achievement.” Joining an academic club can also lead to new friendships, and it looks wonderful on college admission transcripts, especially if the student assumed a leadership position.

Advanced Placement or AP courses

AP classes give high school students a chance to do college-level work, and possibly earn college credit. AP classes and exams are created and overseen by a nonprofit entity called College Board, which also gives the SAT. These year-long classes are taught by high school teachers, but College Board outlines the material for each course and “authorizes” classes to ensure that teachers know what material to cover. Identically named AP classes at different schools vary because teachers select the readings, projects, and other assignments. Overall, though, AP classes tend to be fairly consistent from school to school because at the end of the school year, College Board creates and gives a standardized AP exam and grades it on a scale of 1 to 5. Taking the AP exam isn’t required to pass the class, but students take the test because those who receive a 3 or above on an AP exam can qualify for college credit at most colleges. Also, many high schools and colleges “weight” a student’s GPA by giving more weight to the grade earned in an AP class. For example, earning an A in a regular English course would add a 4.0 to the student’s GPA; but an A in an AP English class would add a 5.0 to the student’s GPA. College Board does a lot of research on its own programs. College Board research from 2020 indicates that students who participate in the AP Capstone Diploma program “have significantly higher first-year college grades… than similar students who did not take any AP Exams in high school.” GreatSchools recently updated the data on our school profiles to help parents find schools that offer AP courses in the U.S. Read more about AP courses.

International Baccalaureate or IB classes

In-depth discussion controlled largely by students is what International Baccalaureate or IB is all about. Founded in Switzerland in 1968, IB has gained popularity for setting high standards and emphasizing creative and critical thinking. IB classes are taught by high school teachers, but the overall curricula and exams are created and graded by IB. Students can take individual IB courses or take a series of IB courses to earn an IB diploma. Students are responsible for their own learning, choosing topics and devising their own projects, while teachers act more as supervisors or mentors than sources of facts. Taking IB classes includes some of the same possible benefits for students as taking AP classes: class grades are weighted and passing the IB exam typically counts for college credit. A 2014 report prepared for IB on research conducted with University of Oregon Honors College students found that former IB students were “more academically adjusted to the rigor and expectations [and] they were not intimidated by the heavy workload required.” Read more about IB classes and programs.

Project Lead The Way or PLTW

Project Lead The Way or PLTW is an organization that provides STEM courses and curriculum to schools. At high schools that offer PLTW, students can take PLTW Computer Science, PLTW Engineering, and PLTW Biomedical Science courses with a hands-on classroom environment that empowers them to solve real-world challenges. Students can take individual classes or a series of classes to complete a “pathway” or course of study. Courses are taught by high school teachers, while the overall curricula are designed by PLTW. Research conducted by Mass STEM Hub of the One8 Foundation reports, after the first year of a six-year study, the following: participating in PLTW courses boosts high school students’ MCAS scores in ELA, math, and especially science and 70 percent of PLTW students agree with the statement: “what I am learning… will help me with subjects I want to study further.” GreatSchools recently updated the data on our school profiles to help parents find schools that offer PLTW courses in the U.S. Read more about PLTW.

Cambridge International

Cambridge International is created and run by Cambridge University. They offer a curriculum used in nearly 1,000 schools in the U.S. and 10,000 schools worldwide. The goal is to develop “a love of learning” with courses “that stretch, challenge, and inspire.” Depending on what schools offer, students can take individual classes or a series. Courses are taught by high school teachers, but curricula is designed by Cambridge International. Research conducted at Florida State University shows 73 percent of former Cambridge International students received A grades in their courses, compared to only 49 percent of the non-Cambridge International students. GreatSchools recently updated the data on our school profiles to help parents find schools that offer Cambridge International courses in the U.S.

Dual enrollment

Dual-enrollment programs allow high school students to take college courses and simultaneously earn both high school and college credit. Sometimes these courses are taught by a high school teacher on the high school campus; other times students take these courses at a local community college; and sometimes students take these courses online. A 2017 What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report found dual-enrollment programs helped students complete high school, improve their high school grades, get into college, and graduate from college. Some schools have highly organized dual-enrollment programs. At other schools, students must take the initiative to work with a counselor to make this work. But in almost all cases, dual-enrollment is both possible and can be a very effective way for high school students to complete up to an Associate’s Degree while still in high school. Read more about how dual enrollment can fuel college success.

Student access to advanced classes is important, even in earlier grades

Many public high schools offer only a few advanced classes, and these are frequently only for 11th and 12th graders. For example, 27 states don’t require their districts to offer any AP, IB, or Cambridge classes. Yet the research shows taking advanced classes has many benefits.

If advanced classes are available for ninth and tenth graders, it’s advisable to enroll them only in classes they’re academically ready for and eager to tackle. Texas State University research found ninth graders enrolled in AP Human Geography scored lower than older students due to their “lack of writing skills…knowledge of the world… maturity… and study skills,” with the result that they were “less likely to major/minor in geography [and] less likely to pursue a career in geography,” than their older classmates. Conversely, another Texas study found that eighth graders in the Waco Independent School District enrolled in AP Spanish Language courses gained multiple benefits: They developed optimism about their futures; they found peer groups who cared about grades; and their educational aspirations were “positively influenced.” Even students considered at-risk for dropping out of high school who participated decided to enroll in higher-level coursework in high school afterward.

As part of the GreatSchools College Success Awards, we analyze data to identify what high school are doing to promote post-secondary success for their graduate. Our research shows that giving all students access to advanced courses is essential — and especially for younger students. Sixty-three percent of College Success Award-winning schools allow ninth graders to take advanced courses. For example, Young Women’s Preparatory Academy, a sixth-twelfth grade magnet in Miami-Dade Unified School District, automatically places every ninth grader in AP World History, and offers 24 AP classes each year.

Another crucial element to providing access to advanced courses is not imposing barriers to access to advanced classes, such as a GPA or prior class grade requirements. Reducing financial barriers to advance courses also contributes to a high school’s success: 84 percent of College Success Award-winning schools offer financial assistance for AP and IB exams, and thirty-one states and the District of Columbia provide financial support to low-income students.

If your teen’s school doesn’t offer advanced courses, or if there’s a specific class your young scholar wants, students can seek enrollment in one of the 38 AP online courses.

Steps to greater equity: increase access and support for struggling students

For students from low-income backgrounds, the benefits of completing college credit-bearing coursework in high school are particularly pronounced: “Research suggests that students who complete AP and dual-enrollment coursework are more likely than their peers to finish high school, enroll in a postsecondary institution, and complete a postsecondary credential or degree,” says Jennifer Zinth, director of high school and STEM initiatives for the Education Commission of the States.

Unfortunately, students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds are less likely to enroll in advanced classes. Word in Black, using 2017-2018 data from the U.S. Dept. of Education, reports only 3.7 percent of Black students and 5.1 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in AP classes, compared to 6.6 percent of white students and 12.9 percent of Asian students. In 2016, the New York Times reported that more than 70 percent of Black students failed their AP exams, compared to an overall 42 percent no-pass rate.

The disparity is even greater when you consider STEM fields. According to 2021 research by the Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn degrees in STEM fields than other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates relative to their share of the adult population. The same report shows that while female students earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science — areas where women are significantly underrepresented in the workforce.

Why do these disparities exist? The Education Trust, a policy center committed to dismantling racial and economic barriers in the American education system, lists six obstacles: resource inequities, educator bias, assessment and grading biases, lack of access to diverse educators, inequitable access to quality early childhood opportunities, and Lack of communication with families. GreatSchools’ College Success Award survey found the same discouraging pattern: students from all ethnicities were not equally represented in advanced courses.

While reducing prerequisites may help make enrollment in advanced courses more representative of a school’s population, more work needs to be done to support all students in those classes, too. In response to a national trend to broaden participation in APs, Walter Parker, a professor of social studies education at the University of Washington, has focused his recent research on how to make AP Government courses more relevant for students who have not traditionally enrolled in advanced classes. Increasing enrollment, Parker said, is just the first step toward helping more students benefit: schools must also provide essential supports so that the students who gain access to advanced courses will succeed.

“We know from College Board data that when you lower the threshold for entry you do get higher participation, but you also get higher failure rates,” Parker says. “So, the trick is to open up the enrollment but also to do something in the courses to increase students’ success.” Through his research, Parker has found that interactive in-class simulations can bolster engagement and help students succeed.

This article is part of a series exploring best-practice approaches used by recipients of GreatSchools’ College Success Award. The College Success Award honors public high schools in nine states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more best practices here.