Evolution of High School Courses: IB, Honors, AP, College Prep, College Courses, and General Studies
By Dr. Gina La Monica
High school curriculum is progressively getting more complex, and at the same time, more career/major driven. Often students at this point in their life do not know what they want to be let alone what they would like to major in. Selecting what path to pursue along with what type of classes to take can be daunting.
Years ago, high schools just offered the core requirements for graduation with little consideration of what colleges are requiring for admissions. Today, students can select from a diverse set of courses that lead to distinct pathways including career technical education, general/basic studies, or college prep.
These divergent roadmaps comprise of various types of courses: International Baccalaureate (IB), honors (H), Advanced Placement (AP), college prep, college courses (college credit through dual or concurrent enrollment), or general studies (including career technical courses). When deciding to enroll in any of these types of classes, be knowledgeable about the differences between them. Each type of course affects a student’s high school academic record or college admissions application in their unique way.
Parents often ask me if it is more beneficial for their child to join an IB program over a rigorous high school course of study to increase his/her chances of being accepted into a high-ranking university. International Baccalaureate programs are highly regarded globally in over 146 countries where all students learn from the same curriculum. A student who commits to an IB program must stay in the program for its entirety; you are usually not allowed to take one or two courses. For some students, the commitment to the totality of the program might be too overwhelming and arduous. Upon graduation, students receive an IB diploma, which is recognized globally. Additionally, students can receive college credit based on their final IB exam scores. Earning an IB diploma is no easy feat, and the top-tier colleges recognize this. To learn more about IB programs, go to the following link: https://www.ibo.org/
Honors courses are generally scattered throughout a high school’s catalog and are more difficult than their general-level counterpart. Most high schools elevate a student’s grade point average (GPA) upon successful completion of a class designated as honors. Always check on the UC’s high school articulation agreement to ensure this course has been recognized as honors by the universities. Some courses have been selected solely by the high school as honors but have not been approved by the universities as an honors course. I would recommend high school students start taking honors courses as a freshman and/or sophomore to successfully prepare them for AP or college-level courses, which they can take in their junior or senior years. The following link has information about honors courses within the Santa Barbara School District: https://pages.sbunified.org/departments/educational/curriculum/honors-placement/
Advanced Placement courses are popular at public schools but are becoming extinct at private college prep schools. These courses are regulated by the College Board and prepare students for an AP exam at the culmination of the class. Students who obtain a four or five on the exam can obtain college credit for the course depending on the universities’ AP policy. Scoring high on the AP exam demonstrates a high level of mastery in the subject area. High schools give students a boost in their GPA when they complete an AP course regardless if they pass the exam, which is why many high school students do not bother to take the test. An interesting fact is that you do not have to take an AP course, such as AP History, to take the exam – just sign up for the test. An AP exam is $95, but there is a reduced fee for those who qualify. For more information about AP courses, go to the following link: https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/
College preparatory courses are classes required for high school general education by the colleges. If you plan on attending a four-year college after high school graduation, make sure you complete these required classes. All general education curriculum for a high school must be articulated and approved by the university to meet college admissions requirements. Do not take any courses that are not on your high school approved list for that specific subject area, otherwise, they will only count as high school credit, not for fulfilling college admission prerequisites. For a list of approved general education courses at your high school, go to the following UC website: https://hs-articulation.ucop.edu/agcourselist
Taking college credit courses when you are in high school is another way to highlight your ability in succeeding in college-level classes. More importantly, community college courses are free to all high school students. Families can save lots of money by having their child complete their general education courses at a local two-year college. Some high schools even offer college courses at their high school referred to as dual or concurrent enrollment, which also increases a student’s GPA. For these students, they earn high school and college credits by only taking one class. Santa Barbara High School offers many dual enrollment courses that can be found on this website: https://sbhs.sbunified.org/programs/sbcc-dual-enrollment Santa Barbara City College has an office for dual enrollment at the following link: https://www.sbcc.edu/dualenrollment/index.php
The last category of courses is in general studies including career technical education. These classes generally do not fulfill any college requirements, but they do meet the requirements for a high school diploma. Some students prefer to study in fields that are not offered at the four-year college, such as automotive technology. Others prefer to matriculate to the community college first before enrolling in a university. For these students, a general or career technical pathway is best suited for their academic goals.
In summary, there are an array of interesting classes to choose from at your local high school. Find the level of curriculum that not only challenges you but that you can be successful at. Take AP or IB courses if you are willing to devote the time and hard work to earn at least an A or B. College admissions staff urge and want high school students to work beyond their comfort zone. However, it is important to find the balance between which curriculum is rigorous but not too much at the expense of academic success. Every child is different with unique learning styles and interests. I recommend taking more demanding courses in the areas that interest you. Unveil your strengths, not your weaknesses by enrolling in classes that are the most appropriate for you.
Dr. Gina La Monica has a Doctorate in Education and has worked as a high school counselor, college administrator, and professor at many universities and colleges including the University of California, Los Angeles, California Lutheran University, California State University, Northridge, San Diego State University, etc. She was a tenured professor and an expert in career technical education and adult learning. She currently teaches at a local college and helps students of all ages from kindergarten to the university level with career exploration, college admissions, learning assessment, tutoring, and education plans.