Julius Figueroa, 19, recently finished his freshman year at Columbia University, one of the country's most prestigious universities. He credits the rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) college-level courses he took in high school with giving him an important edge in a competitive academic environment.
"My AP classes gave me baseline skills and a work ethic that I default to now that I'm in college," said Figueroa.
Unfortunately, minority students are still underrepresented in AP classes. A new campaign, "All In,"aims to enroll more Latino, African American and Native American students with the potential to succeed in these rigorous courses.
AP classes, administered by the College Board, teach college-level material in subjects ranging from math and science to history and languages, and are offered in many high schools around the country. After taking the year-long course, students are encouraged to take the Advanced Placement exams.
AP exams are graded on a 1 to 5 scale, with 3 being a passing grade. Students with high scores - usually a 4 or 5 - can be exempted from taking introductory courses in college. This saves students both time and money. In addition, colleges - especially selective ones - see AP courses and exams as a sign of a student's educational achievement and rigor, so it helps students get into good universities.
"There are too many students who have the potential to succeed, but can't," said Dr. Wendell D. Hall, senior director for policy advocacy at the College Board. "We truly want 100 percent of the African-American, Latino and Native American students who qualify for Advanced Placement to take these exams."
The "All In" campaign uses PSAT scores to identify students who have the potential to succeed in AP courses. Once they are identified, the College Board works with counselors and teachers to support them through letters mailed home in several languages and by contacting parents and students directly. The College Board also encourages high school counselors and teachers to identify high-achieving minority students and urge them to enroll in the classes.
Last year alone nearly 300,000 students with the potential to succeed in certain AP courses did not take them, according to the College Board.
Jeremy Goldman, Counselor Department Chair at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, says there are a variety of factors that contribute to a lack of enrollment among minority students.
"Teens make decisions about their social network based on individuals similar to them," said Goldman. Many students and families might not know about AP classes nor know many students who take them. Moreover, said Goldman, many Latino and other minority students may be anxious when they see mostly affluent, white students in these rigorous courses. "That's why we need to identify [student] leaders in minority groups so they can pave the way for others to enroll in these accelerated classes," Goldman added.
Given the difficulty and rigor of these college-level courses, having supportive instructors and role models is essential.
"I found that my AP teachers were the most inspiring and were the ones who had the most to offer," said Figueroa.
Latina teen Luhit Recinos, who is featured in the "All In" campaign's promotion video, recently graduated high school and took a total of six AP courses. She credits her older brothers for encouraging her to enroll.
"They're the reason why I took AP classes. They took these courses when they were in high school and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have gone out of my way to investigate what these classes were really about," she said.
Recinos tells NBC she believes that where students attend school - as well as their family situation - affects whether or not they enroll in these accelerated courses. Among working-class families, she said, the emphasis may be on getting a job and not spending extra hours studying.
"Students should try and get an education because statistically, if you do get an education, you have a higher income than a person who does not have a bachelor's degree or even an associate's degree," said the teen.
The College Board is partnering with the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League to launch an intensified "All In" campaign in 61 school districts across the United States. Their hope is that this fall, as high school students look at what courses to take, AP classes are front and center.