International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas


I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

8 thoughts on “International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

  1. I love the AP program, and though I used it myself to graduate early from college (and move to a Phd program), I see my kids using it mostly to get into the best colleges and universities (so far, MIT and Berklee School of Music in Boston), where they very often receive no credit at all, and I am not bothered by this. I think AP and IB both work to make better high school programs in parts of the country where we do not have the advanced gifted programs that I have heard spoken of by my friends in New York City, for instance. Or for parents who cannot afford expensive private high schools that feed to expensive private universities.

    At our local high school, I have been upset at the number of AP classes now being dropped in favor of what is called here “CE” or (concurrent enrollment). Basically, it is a class where kids get joint credit at high school and at Weber State University. I am sure that for many, many students, this is a great idea. Many (perhaps even most) of the students here will go to Weber State. But for those who don’t CE is useless. It’s not advanced material, and it’s not accepted by any college outside of Utah, and likely not for some of those inside Utah. I want more AP classes for my kids, but it’s not what is necessarily best for the majority of students and so I sigh.

    • Mette:

      And I’ve been doing a lot of sighing, too.

      As these posts advance, I’ll underscore why, although I clearly have my criticisms of it, I am a supporter of the IB approach to attaining knowledge and developing critical thinking. Thinking critically, analyzing history from many points of view, learning to defend one’s findings verbally, accepting that there are multiple correct ways of answering even core questions – all this leads, I hope, to the development of a learner/leader who is both compassionate toward other cultures and philosophies as well as secure in her views. This, in the end, is for me a central purpose of formal education.

      Other perks (like racking up college credit, winning scholarships, entrance to certain universities, or entrance to a university at all) are just that; perks. Great perks, money-saving perks, door-opening perks, but not the sole purpose of completing a secondary education. I, like you, want my children to be hungry to learn, excited about discovery, engaged in provocative conversations that challenge their points of view, encouraged as creative thinkers, and equipped to solve complex problems in a swiftly shifting world.

      I also want them to be morally sound, people of marrow-deep integrity — but if we rely on school systems alone to instill values like that, we might be waiting a deadly long time. Parents are the prime and final educators. You model that well, Mette.

      As you’ve alluded to: AP and IB courses are great offerings for normal public high school students, the majority of whom cannot attend “expensive private schools that feed to expensive private universities,” as you mention above. Today, AP and IB courses are offered in over 50% of the US public high schools. So sorry some are being dropped from your local high school for CE courses, which have no relevancy outside of an extremely small geographic region.

  2. Hi Melissa, I’m “Jessica of Macau.” I just wanted to let you know that I finished your book tonight. It’s helped inspire me to make more efforts to talk to people. say thanks in Cantonese, etc. 🙂 It also helped me re-visit the deep sadness of losing close family members, which is a really good thing to do every so often I think. Wish you the very best.

    • Jessica of Macau: I’m so glad to get your message. Thank you for reading and for taking the time to write directly to me. A very loving gesture. And I agreed completely: it is a good thing and a necessary thing to revisit the deep sadness of losing our beloveds. That sadness can be purifying and refining, as it rewarms our love for and connectedness to them. I wish you also the very, very best–Melissa

  3. I’ll state my biases up front: I like the IB. A lot. I’ve had kids in both AP and IB. I like IB about 20 times more.

    I’ll jump back into the conversation on this point. Several days ago, a friend of mine who has a daughter in Gr 11 at our international school, approached me wanting to talk about this very issue. She knew that I had been through the college application routine with my older three daughters and she wanted feedback about our experience with IB credit at universities.

    Her daughter wants to go to Brigham Young University-Provo (her top choice) but is discouraged that BYU won’t accept much IB credit or recognize the IB diploma in any substantive way. She asked me about my experiences looking at other universities. We investigated some of her daughter’s other choices (University of California system, University of Kentucky (their home state), the Utah universities, and some private universities. While the number of hours awarded by these universities varied, most of them either acknowledged the achievement of the IB diploma by awarding about 30 hours of credit or they made a list of IB courses stating how many hours each course was worth. BYU was the exception, not the rule, in being stingy with IB credit. I’m certain there are plenty of other universities like BYU, but my informal investigation seemed to indicate that most public/state universities are open to and can be quite generous with IB credits. I know states like Texas and Colorado have passed legislation requiring universities to award credit for the IB.

    One factor to consider, is whether or not passing AP and IB actually offer proof that a student has attained a certain level of competence in the subject they’re being tested in. This is an argument against offering college credit for some courses (I believe the IB DOES require a student to demonstrate proficiency, but that’s another conversation….)

    I have several friends who are professors, one at BYU. She told me that university-wide, they have discovered that passing an AP test doesn’t necessarily mean that a student has university level skills. Specifically, she talked about English. The vast majority of students applying to BYU had taken some form of AP English (with a smattering of IB in there). The majority of those freshman students went on to demonstrate that they didn’t have the writing skills and often the reading comprehension required to do university level work. Waiving the freshman English class only meant that these poorly qualified students went on to struggle in higher level classes. The only way the university could guarantee that the students were prepared to advance was to require all students to take a English reading/writing class as freshman. To me, this is a demonstration of the shortcomings of a standardized test driven model. Testing does not equal thinking does not equal having a “skill.” Being able to regurgitate information does not equate to understanding the complexities and nuances of that information.

    I took AP classes in high school before AP classes were widespread and I was very successful. One main difference between then and now is that my AP classes in the ’80s were smaller because they catered to honors students, and few–there were only classes offered at my school in math, sciences, English and history. Now, there are AP classes for every subject and most students are encouraged to take them, whether they are honors students or not. An additional factor, IMHO, is that now the model of standardized tests being the be all end all of education has become the norm for the US. The reality is that the AP is a test. Half the grade is a multiple choice test–a hard multiple choice test, but a knowledge test. You can teach a test. Universities in the US like tests and they LOVE quantifiable data so an AP test is something they “get.” I do believe that if there is a bias in awarding credit for AP vs IB it is because AP has been around for decades in the US and admissions officers are going to be intimately familiar with it. I also think it is impossible to ignore that AP is designed and run by the same people that run the well-known college entrance exam, the SAT. These are tests that are designed by Americans for US universities and are going to be most accessible for a US school system.

    On the flip side, IB is European/international, has gradually entered the education mainstream in the US, As more school systems embrace IB and adapt it, I think IB credits will become more “normal” in terms of college admissions. However if you haven’t experienced/lived IB, I can understand why universities would look at IB and say, “Isn’t it just like AP?” Anyone who knows IB knows that AP and IB are completely different animals. I think to “get” IB, you almost have to participate in a school system that utilizes it, either as a student, parent, teacher or administrator. If the average administrator is my age and went to school in the 80’s, they aren’t going to be as IB literate as that twentysomething university recruiter who participated in a program in HS or had friends who did.

    I honestly believe that as IB becomes more widespread in the US and as more IB diploma programme graduates move into roles in higher education, the IB will be more valued as a credential. Until then, I think part of the problem is that IB has been lumped into the same category as “college credit earned in HS” without a true understanding of the depth, breadth and comprehensiveness of IB coursework.

  4. Pingback: 25 things, IB students never say | The Struggle Of An IB Student

  5. Melissa, This is your old friend Jennifer Hillam Barton taking a look at your blog. I find the discussion on the IB, AP and American Universities very interesting. BYU doesn’t accept much IB and AP credit because passing those tests doesn’t necessarily mean that the students are ready for college work. What is the point in getting college credit and shortening or accelerating your enrollment at an excellent university. What’s the big hurry? The IB and AP programs do a great job at preparing students for college, but they are not a replacement. In my classes at BYU I often have students who have too much AP credit and who have advanced too far and are forced to choose a major well before they are emotionally ready to. I don’t buy that the IB program doesn’t prepare students for American college entrance exams either. If the programs are so rigorous they ought to do fine. If not there are plenty of prep courses for those tests. I get expat students all the time in my classes. They have more exposure to the world stage for their age, but they are not any smarter or more prepared for university than other students!

    • Jennifer, hello!
      I’m glad to hear a friend’s point of view, and I respect it, especially since yours is particular, given that you are a college instructor. I agree with some of your points. I also think a few of them demand clarification.

      I agree: The AP/IB discussion is interesting.
      Clarification: Most US universities (including BYU, which you mention in your comment) accept AP credits as a matter of course. But the full IB diploma is not like taking individual AP courses, even if one takes seven AP courses, (the ceiling allowed at most high schools.) So it’s faulty to equate IB and AP, unless one is only referring to single IB courses. vs. single AP courses. The full IB diploma and single AP courses are different animals. Only one is a dragon.

      I agree: Passing tests does not mean one is ready for college.
      Clarification: I don’t think passing any test — AP, IB, SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT whatever — assures one will manage any educational experience perfectly or even well. There are many variables, and countless kinds of “smart”, and I do not believe that the spiraling mania for standardized testing is leading to the best measures of “smartness” for individuals or society as a whole. But what can one gal do about that?

      I agree: I don’t think cramming college or high school into a shorter time frame is healthy or even worth it.
      Clarification: Unless you have worked like a maniac in high school (foregoing lots of fun or free time) and, in some cases, paying extra money for AP or IB courses, hoping to in turn pay less in college hours. Some families I know well need their student to get through college as quickly as possible, because the entire family is sacrificing so much to support one child on an American college campus. Three years is better than four years. There can be a big reason for a big hurry.

      I agree: The IB does a great job at preparing students for college. (So many IB students I’ve known claim that the first year of college is easier than the IB was.)
      Clarification: If you know the mechanism of the IB (compared with AP) the educational philosophy, methodology and test-taking approaches of the two are simply different. It’s impossible to appreciate the contrast without having known both approaches. The IB emphasizes verbal and extended essay assessment, whereas AP emphasizes short answer and multiple choice testing. (Not that AP does not have verbal and essay assessment. But those are not the primary tools for measurement.)

      I agree:There are plenty of prep courses for college entrance tests
      Clarification: But if you are scrambling like the dickens to just keep up with the full IB diploma load, you’d probably not have the luxury of time to enroll in (or home-study) a college entrance exam prep course.

      I agree, but with reservation: Expat students have more exposure to the world for their age
      Clarification: In this thread about the IB, I was not talking only about expats, whatever we are defining that group to be (and I must insist that the definition of “expat” is extremely roomy.) I was talking about IB and AP education, which happens globally, incl. in the US. In fact, the IB is growing as rapidly domestically as it is abroad, so the big world picture afforded by IB is more from a philosophical standpoint than from a literal, on-the-streets advantage like what my professor parents were able to give their children during our limited stints abroad. It goes without saying that not all IB students are expats, and not all expats are IB students. And certainly not all IB students are natively “smart”!

      In fact, nothing has made our Dalton feel less smart than the heavy demands of the full IB diploma program.

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