The Opportunity Gap Follows Students to UW-Madison 

Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 2018-2019, the average UW-Madison student graduated in under four years—3.96, to be exact—but this is not the story for every student, especially marginalized students. The limited access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses in low income and minority K-12 school districts recreates disparities in higher education.

On average, students of color earn their bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 4.23 years, 0.27 years more than the average student. Along with enduring consistent microaggressions and erasure on campus, students of color also take longer to obtain their bachelor’s degree at the university because of their K-12 experience.

The opportunity gap is “the disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for all children to be academically successful.” An indicator of this gap is access to AP courses.

National trends show wealthier schools have more AP courses available compared to lower-income schools. According to EdBuild, non-white school districts get $23 billion less than white school districts, even when they have the same number of students.

The cost for schools to supply AP courses range from $1,900 to $11,650, depending on the courses and materials needed. Science and mathematics courses are the most expensive for schools to finance and if students passed those AP tests have the biggest reward at a college or university for transfer credits.

At UW-Madison, students who score a 4 or higher on AP Calculus BC or AP Physics B will receive nine and eight credits, respectively. The scores combined with other AP courses give those students a head start at the university. 

Many low-income and minority students were not given that opportunity and feel behind when they step on this campus. Some students could not afford to take the AP test their schools offered. One AP test costs $94 per test. 

“I only took one AP class, AP Bio, because financially, I couldn’t afford to pay the extra like $100 per class,” said Jayla Thompson, a UW-Madison freshman who has no AP credits.

“If I could have afforded them, I would have taken them in a heartbeat.”

Nationwide, almost 750,000 graduating high school seniors earned a score of 3 or above, the score needed at most universities for credit, on at least one AP test. There is an increase of black and Latinx students taking AP tests. Black students represent 8.8 percent of AP test-takers, but only 4.3 percent of those earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam. This is compared to White students who represent 49.5 percent of test-takers, but 54 percent of test-takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.

“At a university like this, it’s a numbers based thing,” Thompson said. “So I feel like they [students without AP credits] will struggle more building their identity around those nonexistent AP credits for them.”

The AP program was introduced in the 1950s for small amount of ambitious students to have the chance to receive credit for college-level work in high school. Today, almost 40 percent of high school students take AP courses, making it very common for many students at top universities.

For UW-Madison students, there is a strong correlation in reduced time-to-degree and earning credits outside of the university, including AP and IB coursework. Within the report from Academic Planning and Institutional Research, graduates had an average of 20.2 credits at graduation that were not earned at UW-Madison, most of which were earned in high school and a small amount from other institutions.

In addition to outside course work, and taking a higher number of credits per semester and graduating with degrees from the College of Letters and Science and the School of Human Ecology reduces time-to-degree.

“The time to graduation is not the same for everyone based on a wide variety of factors unique to each individual and the first emphasis is always on successful graduation, not minimization of time.” said Steve Cramer, UW-Madison’s vice provost for teaching and learning.

For students who graduate within three years, more than 90% enter UW-Madison with advanced standing credits. On average, these students have 39 credits from their secondary education.

Without AP courses in high school, it extends a student’s time to complete their bachelor’s degree. Another factor in increasing -time-to-degree is delayed major declaration, which could have been avoided with a greater variety of courses offered in high school to explore.

The opportunity gap is not only an issue for K-12 schools, but also an issue for the university level, for the great indicator AP credits are for the amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree. This glaring gap between white students and non white students and high-income and low-income students in K-12 education persists in higher education, for the few students that make it to these top institutions.

Alexandria is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is pursuing a certificate in educational policy studies and criminal justice. Follow her on Twitter @alexjoywrites.

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