College Board: for students or for profit?

With AP exams looming for many SHS students, complaints about the College Board are more prevalent than ever. The organization has been criticized for its poor handling of a uniquely challenging academic year. Concerns about the College Board, however, are anything but novel. With a monopoly on education, the organization has an absurd amount of power with little accountability to the people it supposedly serves.

A hugely profitable business, the College Board — classified as a non-profit organization and therefore exempt from taxes — totals over $1 billion in annual revenue. According to Forbes, about half of this revenue is generated through AP tests. David Coleman, chief executive, makes almost $2 million annually.

As a non-profit organization, the College Board should be working to minimize cost in order to make their exams more equitable.”

The organization’s sizable revenue proves that they are charging significantly more than necessary for their services. Despite being a non-profit organization, they average around 30% gross profit margins for each AP test. It costs $95 to take a single AP exam, with a $40 late fee, not to mention the $15-25 fee to send the scores to each college. This cost can be an unnecessary barrier to families with multiple children or students taking multiple AP classes. As a non-profit organization, the College Board should be working to minimize cost in order to make their exams more equitable. Their immense revenue calls into question their ultimate motivation: is the College Board’s goal to further American education, or simply to make a profit?

The organization also perpetuates socioeconomic disparities in education with new rules for the 2021 virtual exams. Students who choose to test online because of COVID must use a laptop or desktop computer  — not personal Chromebook or a smartphone, which are often cheaper devices. It is unreasonable to require families to have expensive devices available for students to take an exam, and this unfair expectation can be harmful to students who are already at a disadvantage.

In addition to magnifying socioeconomic disadvantages, the AP program amplifies racial inequities in the country. According to the College Board’s own statistics, Black and Latino students were disproportionately likely to receive a failing score as compared to the average student. According to the College Board in 2019, the overall failure rate for all students is 41%; in comparison 56% of Latino and 68% of Black students did not earn passing scores. Minority participation in AP programs across the country still lags — according to a study by the Education Trust, Black students, who make up 15% of high schoolers, only make up 9% of AP participation. 

With grade inflation a growing issue in the country, AP exam scores can be helpful for college admissions. Lacking AP classes in general, or not achieving a passing score on the exam, can be harmful to a students’ prospects at getting into college. Since the College Board functions as a third-party organization to help colleges narrow their field of applicants, and access to higher education is one of many factors that contributes to generational wealth disparities, the organization has a great responsibility to make their opportunities equitable.

The exam’s 41% pass rate speaks for itself — AP courses force students to try to memorize a wide and shallow range of knowledge, rather than allowing time to delve deeply into topics that encourage intellectual curiosity.”

Not only do AP classes contribute to inequity in education, AP students and teachers criticize the courses themselves. AP courses are meant to simulate the material of the equivalent college course for students; however, this goal is rarely accomplished. The exam’s 41% pass rate speaks for itself — AP courses force students to try to memorize a wide and shallow range of knowledge, rather than allowing time to delve deeply into topics that encourage intellectual curiosity. This year especially, with many schools online and spending less total time in class, the AP exams should have included less material to allow students to fully understand the course. Instead, the College Board announced that the required material would be the exact same as previous years. From an academic standpoint, this decision was dubious. From a mental health standpoint, it could be catastrophic. In an already stressful and challenging year for every teen, trying to learn the same amount of material in considerably less class time has the potential to cause immense anxiety and stress that is completely unnecessary.

AP classes are undeniably a valuable opportunity to learn college level material as a high school student. However, the College Board needs to do better. AP classes should be more accessible and should work to end inequity in education rather than increasing it. The organization should prioritize student wellbeing over their (sizable) profits. Ultimately, the College Board has taken advantage of their monopoly on the industry to create a business model that uses students for profit.