As I prepare for my AP exams, I cannot help but wonder who benefits from my effort and, more importantly, my money. According to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers these exams, the Advanced Placement courses I take will help me “stand out on college applications,” and I will potentially earn college credit for qualifying exam scores—but why does the College Board care about me? After all, whether or not I am admitted to my top schools and/or earn college credit has no immediate impact on the people who run College Board. While the organization claims it is “dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education,” many people, including me, question the real motives of the College Board, which also administers the SAT, PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, CLEP exams, Accuplacer, and CSS profile, arguing instead that it is driven by profit. For example, when the College Board redesigned the SAT in 2014, Business Insider suggested that it “may have been changed to help the College Board maximize revenue”; in 2015 the Washington Post mentioned the College Board in an article about the shockingly large salaries of executives of major education nonprofits (more on that later); and earlier this year, educators and guidance counselors across the country argued that the College Board’s new registration rules for AP exams created “an undue burden on students” (as the Washington Post reported).
In search of concrete evidence that would help confirm or deny my suspicions about the College Board, I decided to do a bit of research on the organization’s finances. Thanks to ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer (projects.propublica.org/nonprofits), accessing the College Board’s data was easy—specifically, I looked at Form 990s, IRS documents that collect financial information about nonprofit organizations, from 2012 to 2016. Before I delve into the content of these forms, though, I should address how the College Board primarily generates revenue from the services it offers. Each person who registers for a College Board-administered test pays a fee, with the amount varying by test: for example, the SAT in 2018-2019 costs $47.50 (plus an extra $17 for the optional essay), but students pay $94 per AP exam. The College Board charges additional fees to send score reports to colleges ($12 a pop), to change the date or location of a test, to register for a test by phone, and so on.
If the average student took only one or two College Board-administered tests throughout high school, perhaps I could more easily overlook the cost of College Board services. However, by the end of senior year, many students owe the organization several hundred to a thousand dollars, and I am one of those students: I’ve taken both the PSAT and SAT twice, in addition to four AP exams and two SAT Subject Tests, and in total given the College Board $607 (assuming my math is correct). If I take the SAT again this fall and send that score report to eight colleges, then sit for five AP exams next May, my new total comes to about $1200. Twelve hundred dollars. It’s not that I want to spend my parents’ money on standardized tests—trust me, I don’t—but because the College Board has a “virtual monopoly” on this corner of the education market, according to a blog post on EdLab’s website, there isn’t much choice in the matter. (EdLab is an education research organization at Columbia University’s Teachers College in NYC.) Are you beginning to understand my suspicions about the College Board’s motives? If the organization truly prioritized my academic success over my ability to type in credit card numbers, you’d think they would offer lower prices. Furthermore, for low-income students, the burden is even greater, though the College Board claims to provide equal opportunities for students “regardless of race, gender or income” (my emphasis).
Still, I understand that the College Board needs money in order to compensate hundreds of essay-readers, develop thousands of test questions, and print millions of answer sheets, and for these reasons, I was initially willing to give College Board the benefit of the doubt. However, the data from its Form 990s revealed that for a nonprofit, the College Board makes pretty nice profits—enough to grant its CEO, David Coleman, a seven-figure salary in 2016. Many individuals who work in and research the American education system agree that there is cause for concern when a nonprofit—let me reiterate, the College Board is legally classified as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization—makes a $37.5 million profit. Not only do individuals pay dearly for the College Board’s services up front, but taxpayers also indirectly contribute to the organization’s revenue, since the College Board receives significant federal grants: in 2016, the federal government awarded over $2.3 million to the College Board, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers audit. The Form 990s and PwC audit reveal that the College Board overprices its services (allowing for large profit margins) while scooping up taxpayer dollars—and if that doesn’t make you mad, remember that the College Board is tax-exempt due to its 501(c)(3) status.
Even if the College Board began with noble intentions to improve American education, its financial data indicate the high probability that it currently operates like any other for-profit corporation, which the federal government supports for whatever reasons. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, the College Board is a giant in the realm of standardized testing, and even the ACT will not be a truly fierce competitor unless it creates its own equivalents to the PSAT, Advanced Placement program, SAT Subject Tests, CSS profile, and the myriad other tests and services offered by the College Board (and then successfully markets them abroad). In 2018, more students than ever before registered for the SAT and enrolled in AP courses, according to College Board press releases, a further indication that students for years to come will probably find themselves forking over money to an organization that has no genuine interest in their education—unless we demand changes starting now. Therefore, I hope the tables I have provided in this article will inspire you to question the College Board and the role it should or should not play in your academic career and the impacts it should or should not have on your bank account. Think about who, truly, gets more out of the College Board’s services—you, or the College Board?