We’ve all been there. Watching the number of available seats drop for a course you desperately want to take crushes your soul a little. But for some students this stress eases as they advance in class rank; for others, it is ongoing. Currently, the University of Michigan’s policy on assigning enrollment appointment gives students from better-resourced high schools preferential treatment at an institutional level.
U-M assigns enrollment appointments based on Credits Toward Program. The more credits you have, the earlier you can secure your spot in a course. Therefore, students who come to college having already received Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate scores set by U-M will enroll first among their class throughout their college career, while those at the back of the line will continue to be pushed out of their desired courses. The repercussions of this issue impact computer science students particularly strongly, where lower registration priority means ending up on long waitlists for courses they want to take or even need to complete their degrees.
If every high school student had equal access to AP and IB courses, then perhaps a system of credit-based enrollment times would grant equality of opportunity to all U-M students. In U.S. public schools, however, that is not the case; resource inequality manifests along racial, economic and geographic lines.
Let’s back up. AP courses cost money — a lot of money. The College Board estimates it costs schools between $1,900 and $11,650 to start one new AP course. On top of these expenses, running a new class means paying another teacher. In cities like Detroit, where money is in “short supply in city schools that have spent much of the recent decades fending off one crisis after another,” such cumulative costs frequently diminish the feasibility of offering AP and IB courses.
Since the amount of money a school receives depends substantially on property taxes from its district, wealthy schools in wealthy neighborhoods often have more money to spend on AP and IB courses. Accordingly, students from higher-income communities are more likely to take AP courses than students from lower-income communities.
These disparities are also prominent along racial lines. According to a ProPublica report, white students are 1.8 times more likely to take AP classes than Black students nationwide. In Michigan specifically, that number jumps to 2.6 percent. U.S. Department of Education research backs up trends demonstrated by this data. In 2014, Black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, but only 18 percent of students who pass AP exams with a qualifying score of 3 or above.
There is also geographic inequity in AP test completion. A 2017 report explains rural schools also face challenges of overcrowding and limited resources, and these resource constraints are reflected in accessibility of AP courses nationwide. In 2015, 73 percent of seniors in rural high schools had access to at least one AP course, compared to 95 percent of seniors in suburban high schools. Rural schools are often overlooked because they are more isolated than urban and suburban schools, but one-fifth of public school students in the U.S. attend a rural school. That’s a sizable accessibility issue. While access to higher-level courses in rural schools has increased over recent years, that 22-percent gap is still very real and very wide.
In putting forth these stats, I do not intend to paint over any community with a wide brush — each community has its own complexities that influence how its schools operate. But I do want to draw attention to inequalities that reverberate in our enrollment time assignments. I want to highlight those connections because, through its CTP-based system of enrollment appointment assignment, U-M is perpetuating socioeconomic inequities in the education system. A system that privileges students with access to AP and IB courses is a system that privileges students from affluent schools.
For a university that invests heavily in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives and seems determined to portray itself as equitable, it is shocking that this structural bias against students from lower-income and rural communities is built into its system of course registration. In renewing patterns of privilege, U-M is sending a message about which students it values.
But let’s be clear, it’s not just U-M. If you research the registration time systems of large universities, you’ll find that many of them have similar structures. So if our system is inherently unfair, what’s a better alternative? Let’s look at Boston University. Each semester, BU randomizes a list of numbers 0 through 9, and registration start times are assigned (within each class year) based where the last digit of a student’s ID number falls on that list. The key idea here is that BU’s system of enrollment time assignment is randomized. It isn’t systematically biased toward any one student over another. If a student gets an early enrollment slot two semesters in a row, it’s by chance.
AP and IB courses provide fruitful, valuable learning experiences for high school students; however, we should not be basing our system of course enrollment on a system that is inherently unequal, classist and continuously puts students from affluent communities at the front of the line.
Kayla Chinitz is a junior in LSA and the School of Education.