To IB or not to IB? It may boil down to wealth
IBDP is an academically-challenging two-year programme for 16 to 19-year-olds. Source: Shutterstock

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) has grown in popularity over the years, rivalling other options such as A-Level, national and state certifications, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Often seen as one of the tougher pre-university courses available, the IBDP is a two-year programme for 16 to 19-year-olds. According to the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), 3,293 schools in 153 countries offered the IBDP programme as of November 1 2018.

The number of IBDP’s offered worldwide between 2012 and 2017 has grown by a staggering 39.3 percent. IB offers four programmes for students aged three to 19.

While it has risen in popularity in some countries, the IBDP is also known for being challenging. Unlike A-Level, its popular counterpart, IBDP candidates are required to take six subjects as opposed to three or four.

These include a balance between science, arts, maths, languages and humanities subjects, as well as three core requirements: theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and an extended essay (EE, a 4,000-word research project in the student’s area of interest).

Developing well-rounded individuals?

Community service is a core component of the IBDP. Source: Shutterstock

The IBO says on its website that the IBDP “aims to develop students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge – students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically.”

The IBDP stands out from other programmes as it is not about memorising and regurgitating facts and figures; students are expected to be inquisitive, think critically and apply what they have learned. Students are also assessed in multiple formats (e.g. written, oral, etc.) which counts towards the overall grade, benefiting those who dislike 100 percent examination-based assessments.

As students are required to undertake research and be involved in community service, the programme is said to provide a balanced education that complements rigorous academic study. Coupled with wide subject exposure (when compared to other pre-university options), it’s easy to understand the programme’s appeal among parents.

Meanwhile, students who haven’t decided what to study at university may benefit from the programme which allows them to learn about a variety of things, knowing that at the end of their onerous two-year programme, they’ll walk away with a certification that’s recognised by leading universities around the world.

Hungry for international education

Does the IBDP put students ahead of the pack, when compared to those who pursue other pre-university options? Source: Shutterstock

Reports suggest that the IBDP programme is good preparation for university; global research findings note that in the UK, IBDP students “outperform their A-Level peers in terms of enrolling in top universities and achieving first or second-class honours.”

Meanwhile, a large-scale study in an urban US district indicated that enrollment in the IBDP increases the probability that students will graduate from high school and enrol in college while IBDP students in the US have higher rates of university enrollment and graduation at four-year institutions compared to the national average.

According to university admissions officers, IBDP students tend to score significantly higher than A-Level students in the following areas: encouraging independent inquiry, nurturing an open mind, developing self-management skills and encouraging a global outlook.

The IBO also claims that IBDP students “are likely to enrol at top universities”. In China, archival data shows that 72 percent of IBDP graduates in China from 2002 to 2012 attended one of the top 500 universities in the world, while teachers and administrators in IBO’s case study expressed that the IBDP prepared students well for university studies.

Unsurprisingly, the programme has seen growth in certain areas, such as in Dubai, UAE, where a Frank Knight report noted that the IB is Dubai’s fastest growing curriculum, with The National also reporting that its international curriculum means it’s transferable to others schools.


Arguably, one of the biggest criticisms of the programme is its hefty price tag, making critics argue that it is ‘elitist’.

The IBDP is available in selected state, private, national and international schools. It can cost over US$15,000 per year, but prices vary between institutions and they tend to cost much more in international schools. Meanwhile, the total estimated fees for an A-Level programme could cost some US$8,000, but that also depends on the institution, the number of subjects taken and whether you are a local or international student.

So, does the IBDP only benefit a cadre of students from wealthier backgrounds? Maybe. But maybe not.

Comparing the participation rates and performance over time of low-income and higher-income IBDP students (the definition of both brackets were not specified), IBO found that the participation of low-income students in the IBDP has increased, but does not say why; ie. whether there has been an increase in the availability of scholarships, etc.  

“On average, low-income diploma candidates earned just around the 24 total points needed to earn the diploma. Low assessment scores, particularly in science, math, individuals and societies, and arts, were the greatest barrier to successful completion of the diploma for low-income candidates,” said the report.

However, one caveat noted that the research and recommendations made were based on visits to a small number of IBDP schools.

Meanwhile, despite its holistic approach to education, the programme isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of memes and even Twitter accounts dedicated to highlighting the difficulties of the programme – just look up the hashtag: #IBproblems. While memes and jokes serve as creative outlets, the underlying issue is that the IBDP is tough, and not everybody pulls through, with some reports suggesting many students in certain schools drop out.

Susannah Mitchell wrote on the harbinger, a Shawnee Mission East High School student publication in Kansas, US, that she quit the IBDP after one year because she simply couldn’t “do it anymore”.

“I can’t handle the constant stress, the constant anxiety and losing sleep over school assignments that don’t really mean anything. I’m not wired to concentrate for hours each night on my pre-calc homework. I don’t read very well into the international literature we’re given to examine; I don’t catch a lot of the imagery and I just don’t get Shakespeare,” she said.

However, Mitchell noted that there are students who thrive in the IBDP.

“Some people like competing with each other to get the highest test scores and biting at each other’s throats when the test results come out. Some people view it as an extended family, like an exclusive club that’s only for the best of the best. I know girls who live off an all-nighter spent studying chemistry and guys who can spit out every detail of American history (including both continents). But that’s not me,” she opined.

Meanwhile, those who favour depth over breadth argue that students should focus on studying subjects they enjoy and intend to use in life, rather than continue to study subjects they dislike and don’t expect to use in the foreseeable future.

It’s unfair to pit one pre-university programme against another when their objectives and philosophies may differ.

But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that every student learns differently, and should be given a fair chance to bloom under a curriculum that suits their learning style. Education should be based on the concept of equity, where every child is given a platform to flourish without being put at any form of disadvantage.

The reality is, most youths are probably not given a fair chance to bloom as they have fewer alternatives to choose from, especially when certain education programmes such as the IBDP are less accessible to them due to a poorer socio-economic background. This creates a divergence between those who can afford an expensive education and enjoy the benefits it has to offer and those who can’t.

So, to IB or not to IB? It may boil down to a matter of wealth.

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