Are Pricey University Summer Programs Worth It?

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Dollar Sign College Campus

It costs $10,490 for a high school student to spend seven summer weeks at Harvard, $11,900 for two months at Stanford, and $8,170 to spend a month taking classes and living in the dorms at Johns Hopkins. Students take the time and effort — and parents spend the money — because it makes them feel as though they’ve got an edge when applying to competitive colleges. But increasingly experts are decrying these programs as, well, kind of a scam.

“A lot of these programs really prey on the anxiety of parents about getting kids into selective colleges,” Elizabeth Morgan of the National College Access Network told Bloomberg News. “It’s a revenue strategy. It’s available to those who can afford it.”

Summer programs are cash cows for universities, which would otherwise be un- or under-occupied during summer months. High school students often opt for programs at extremely selective schools as a way to prove that they’re academically serious, and in hopes of getting preferential admissions treatment later. But college admissions officials are wary:  “These programs are not a back door to the university, nor should they be,” James Miller, dean of admissions at Brown, said in the Bloomberg News article. “It’s something that not a lot of people can afford, so we don’t want to advantage those who have the opportunity.”

And considering that admissions to summer programs is way less competitive (the University of Chicago accepted 70 percent of applicants to its summer program, while its admit rate for undergrads is a measly 8 percent), spending a summer at a dream school might actually set up a student for heartbreak.

Meanwhile, by attending these programs, students are missing out on other opportunities, like taking meaningful (or non-meaningful!) summer jobs, or taking on an internship. But don’t expect these programs to go away anytime soon; as college admissions gets more competitive, these summer programs start to seem like a smart way to get an edge — even if they’re really not. The Johns Hopkins-run Center for Talented Youth offers intensive summer academic programs for second graders, even. What, you spent your second-grade summer running around playing in a field somewhere? You’re already so far behind!

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  1. I confess I sent my daughter to a college summer program last year. She learned to live among complete strangers, confidently navigate a city much larger than Baltimore and pull all-nighters to get her work finished. In my view the summer was a sucess.

  2. I was surprised to see that CTY is mentioned in a way that shows the author’s misunderstanding of the program. The Johns’Hopkins CTY students actually have to test to be accepted to the program and are among a very small percentage of highly gifted learners. The kids do actually play at their camp, with other brilliant children, and they get to choose programs of interest to them. It is a fantastic program and there is financial aid available, so it is not limited to gifted children from wealthy families. The point of the program is not to get the children in to Hopkins but to provide direction and create structure for interests they are seeking on their own. Maybe fact check before you bash?

    • KG, you’re right — CTY is different in many ways from the programs many universities run targeting high school students trying to gain an edge w/ college admissions. (I do know CTY well, actually, having several friends who worked w/ the program, and having done CTY after-school when I was in middle school — I remember learning about calligraphy and Beowulf. It was great!) But the larger point — that students & parents are increasingly anxious about not falling behind in the college admissions game, and that the pressure put on kids to succeed is starting earlier and earlier… well, I think that point still stands. That’s not to say that any one kid will or won’t have a great time at a CTY summer program — but that we should look at these trends with a critical eye, too.

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