At the beginning of the school year, the whiteboard in the student activities center of Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) Manhattan is unremarkable, blank except for the remnants of last June’s dry-erase markings. Slowly, though, as the year goes on, the board begins to fill up, getting more and more crowded as more students add to it. The first writing happens in late November or early December, the first student to fill the emptiness surrounded by congratulatory others as they write the name of the college they’ve just been accepted into.
The Acceptance Board, as it is known throughout the school, is almost as old as BHSEC itself. While the acceptances remain anonymous in name, the clamor around a student writing down a prestigious school can add to the intensity of college decisions. Whether you think the Acceptance Board is a good way to celebrate your academic success or fear that it brings more toxicity into the college application process, there is no doubt it highlights the increasing pressure around college decisions that today’s teens must face. Schools like BHSEC pride themselves on getting their students into prestigious universities, but as the NYC high school system gets more and more cutthroat, students and teachers alike are looking into anything that will give them an edge over the competition.
BHSEC’s teaching model is one that has gotten more attention recently, especially in terms of college readiness: the school offers students both a high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree from Bard College – its parent institution – in four years. Daniela Plaza, a member of the class of 2020, says her “favorite part of the program was the way it made college more accessible to individuals that would have a harder time completing it.”
This is in line with BHSEC’s original mission, but as dual enrollment becomes more popular among NYC high schools, it is often being used as application fodder by students who can afford to pay for four years of college (as opposed to two). While some students make use of the 60 credits they earn by transferring all of them to SUNYs, CUNYs, Bard College or other schools that accept all or most of their credits, many choose to use these credits to beef up their college application, applying to universities that don’t take their credits but instead see them as something that sets them apart from other applicants.
College Now Program
Outside of the BHSEC model, dual enrollment’s availability has increased in other NYC schools, as many have partnered with CUNY via its College Now program, which offers dual enrollment and college readiness programs to “help students meet high school graduation requirements and prepare for academic and social success in college.”
More than 470 NYC high schools participate in this program, such as Beacon, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even specialized high schools like Stuyvesant. Many schools partner with College Now in addition to offering credit through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, which have also gained popularity as a way to stand out on one’s college application or to bypass prerequisite courses. AP classes, sponsored by The College Board, have long been the most common option for students looking for more challenging material; each AP course culminates in a standardized exam, the score of which (1-5, 5 being the highest possible score) determines whether credit is granted. Their popularity has only been growing – over the last 5 years, the number of students who have taken at least 1 AP exam has increased by 71.5 percent.
“I don’t think I got any credit but [AP] didn’t interfere too much with college stuff,” says Teddy Sandler, who graduated from Bronx Science in 2018. Sandler currently attends the University of Chicago, which doesn’t take any credit prior to matriculation, but she notes that her AP classes “were sometimes more interesting which made [taking the course] more enjoyable” than regular coursework. Many students take AP classes in areas of study they are particularly interested in, especially if they intend to pursue it in the future. Still, a large part of the appeal comes from how impressive AP courses look on a college resume. Another Bronx Science graduate, Syed Wahid (class of 2020), maintains that “In terms of benefits, I can only assume it effectively bolstered my application as I was accepted to my school of choice.”
The application-bolstering effect of credit programs is amplified when put into the context of NYC’s high school system, which is the nation’s largest. 73 percent of students in the district are economically disadvantaged, which means that public schools’ credit programs can be extremely helpful, especially if families cannot afford private SAT prep or expensive extracurriculars. And for students who did not get accepted to one of NYC’s elite public schools, these programs are one way to level the playing field. This year, students of all economic backgrounds will be looking to put college credits on their applications, as these credit courses – unlike other resume-fluffing extracurricular activities– can often be taken online.
All these factors put increasing pressure on high schools to offer the most extensive list of AP courses or dual enrollment opportunities possible, and for students to take advantage of them. This pressure is nothing new; Wahid notes that “participating in AP classes from freshman year onwards, taking progressively more, was an intrinsic part of my high school culture ... I took as many honors and AP classes as I possibly could, trying to maximize application utility, every year.” Likewise, Sandler describes the culture around APs at her school as one that encourage students to “take as many high level classes as you can because everyone else is, even if you don’t realize why you’re doing it.”
Many of Manhattan’s top schools are known for their intense workload, which produces a sort of “stress culture” in which students prioritize grades over their mental health. Speaking on BHSEC’s environment, Plaza says that “the culture of competition surrounding grades was definitely intensified since ... these grades were remaining on permanent transcripts.” While schools offer guidance counseling and college prep programs, it is often difficult for everyone to get individual support, especially in larger schools such as Stuyvesant and Beacon. Conversely, in smaller schools like BHSEC, there is a fear that each college will only take a certain number of students from the same small high school, leading to paranoia around applications.
Generally, the fall of senior year is an incredibly stressful time, at least according to another BHSEC alumnus, Evan Farley (class of 2020), who thinks the Associate’s Degree offered by Bard “gave people more to brag about” and that “everyone [he] know[s] who was an [AP or IB kid] was pretty annoying and stressed about college vocally.”
Yet could all this stress be worth it? As parents, teachers, and students gear up for the 2021-2022 school year, college credit programs are on the docket for almost all of Manhattan’s public schools. As standardized testing was impacted because of COVID, many colleges have made tests like the SAT and ACT optional, placing more weight on advanced coursework. Colleges recognize that every school is different, understanding that some may not offer the full range of AP classes or dual enrollment opportunities. However, it can still be difficult for students to feel like their work is being appreciated: “Just because I didn’t take an AP class doesn’t mean I didn’t do college-level work,” says Plaza.
Typically, larger schools will offer a more diverse range of AP classes that students can place into or choose from. Schools like BHSEC have a set model, where students have “no autonomy in the matter” once they decide to attend, according to Farley. Instead, the freedom – and the pressure, according to Plaza – came “more from the actual classes that you took as opposed to the college credit itself since most people received that.” As more and more students take college classes in high school, what’s impressive now is what specific courses are taken, and the difficulty level of these courses. This is certainly daunting for a new high schooler (or parent of one), but the best thing to do is research potential schools; many of them, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Beacon, Millennium, and LaGuardia, have overviews of their college credit programs on their websites.
Many students who have participated in credit programs acknowledge the heavy workload and intense pressure to perform well. Some, like Sandler, call themselves “foolish” for not paying “attention to college until after [they] applied,” instead focusing on APs without really understanding their impact. But others, such as Wahid, “don’t regret” taking a large number of AP classes. Either way, the hard work of these students has paid off, as all the interviewees were accepted to schools they were happy with and that most people would consider very prestigious. Still, the college application process is far from perfect, especially in a city so full of qualified students.
“In an ideal world,” says Wahid, “colleges could perfectly identify academically capable and passionate individuals ... but ultimately in my experience it was a numbers game.”