Thousands of Minnesota high school students are huddling in study groups, jamming review sessions and staying up until the wee hours. They are preparing to take Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which began last week and conclude Friday.

But as more students take rigorous AP classes and pass the exams that can earn them college credits, more colleges and universities are scaling back those credits.

Formerly, students who scored a 3 or better out of 5 on their AP exams could get college credit for it. Most colleges and universities, including the University of Minnesota, have kept their policies in place, some with changes. The University of California, Baylor University and Tufts University are among those that are in the process of reducing student credit for AP classes.

Without the credits, students might have to pay thousands of dollars more in tuition and take a heavier class load to graduate in four years.

So, are AP classes still worth the extra work, worry and costs?

Students, teachers and colleges say yes because the more difficult course work better prepares students and makes them more attractive to colleges.

Nel Pilgrim-Rukavina, a junior at Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul, says she has been more challenged by her AP chemistry class than any she has taken. "I usually don't have to try a lot in my classes to do well," she said. But in chemistry she's had to hire a tutor for the first time.

Regardless of how she does on Tuesday's AP exam, Pilgrim-Rukavina says it has been worth it. "This gives a really good idea of what college should be like."

In addition to the experience, though, she would like to get some college credit from the AP work. "If I can make college cheaper in any sense, that would be good," she said.

Similarly, Mira Leon, a senior at Edina High School, views AP classes more as a way of getting into a good college than of making her way through one. "It shows that you are challenging yourself," she said.

Both students are part of a growing trend of elite students who are taking more advanced-level classes. In Minnesota, for example, the number of students who took an AP exam grew from 9,579 in 2004 to 14,396 last year -- a 50 percent gain.

Students such as Leon say that getting in study groups, using the old reliable flashcards and study guides, and starting early review sessions for the May exams are good steps toward passing them.

At Woodbury High School, one teacher took his U.S. history class to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for a daylong review. Another teacher holds review sessions several times a week during lunch hours.

Because some colleges are giving less credit, students now pay attention to which accept AP course work, says Beth Gjerde, a guidance counselor at Henry Sibley. "If the college doesn't take it, then the kids don't take the exam," she said.

"In this time of underfunding of education, it doesn't surprise me that colleges and universities are looking to collect more money," says Bill Smith, principal of Southwest High School in Minneapolis. "They're driven by a need for money, like the rest of us," he said.

But that perception is incorrect, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. Due to complex funding from many sources other than just tuition, "colleges lose money on every student," Nassirian said. And because there already are more students trying to get into college than the schools can handle, there's no real need to keep students there longer, he added.

Colleges are changing their AP policies, Nassirian said, because of "increasing skepticism ... that they have the general equivalency to college level work."

But he also encourages students to take AP classes because of the rigor. The College Board, the organization that sponsors both the SATs (Student Aptitude Test) and the Advanced Placement program, pitches the AP program to students and families as a way to earn college credit and lower tuition bills while in high school.

"That's really unfortunate," Nassirian said. The primary reason for taking AP courses should be for students to take the toughest courses available, he said.

"A more rigorous high school course of study is the best preparation for college."

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287