Pricey Summer Programs for Students: Advantage or Indulgence?

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Gone are the days of lazy teenage summers, when kids could sleep in till noon and work a couple hours scooping ice cream for spending money, ride their bikes to no particular destination, and stop only when they felt like it, or go to a friend’s door, unannounced, just to see if she wanted to hang out.  Our teenagers are busy, focused, and accomplished.  They are maximizing their summer opportunities, building their resumes, maybe improving their chances at college admissions.  Our teenagers are getting internships, externships, substantive jobs that will pave their way professionally.  They are participating in language immersion programs to sharpen skills. They are traveling to international destinations to participate in nonprofit, humanitarian aid programs.  They are relocating to college campuses for summer classes, years before they are in college.  And many of their parents are spending a lot of money on these summer programs, some in the hope that the programs will help them get into the college of their choice.

Some local examples:  “Heather” is spending two months on a yacht in the Caribbean, doing marine biology research. Not cheap. “Connor” is in China, participating in a competitive State Department program for Chinese speakers, to learn about the culture (although the State Department pays his way).  “Jenna” is in Costa Rica, with a nonprofit organization building a school.  Her parents gladly paid the $6,000 plus for the program, hoping she would grow, learn, and yes, develop her young resume.  “Yasmine” is interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in a lab, assisting a world class research scientist.  No pay for her work, but at least she’s not paying them.  “Ryan” is in Spain for four weeks, living with a Spanish family and speaking only Spanish, at a cost of about $1,000 per week.  “Ella” is at Washington University in St. Louis, in a summer college program, earning six college credits and (her parents are) paying about $6,500 for the experience.  “Bethany” is going to six different lacrosse camps, at six different colleges, each with a steep registration fee.

There is debate about whether these expensive summer programs help or hurt our high school students in terms of their college applications.  Our intentions to help our kids learn, grow, and yes, distinguish themselves by participating in these programs may backfire.  Some admissions officers say that when kids write about these programs and activities (a yacht? in the Caribbean?) it reeks of privilege, and comes across like they have purchased an unfair advantage, and that is something admissions officers do not care for.  Colleges say they are looking for authentic experiences, things that have changed the student, made him or her grow or mature.  This can happen volunteering in the neighborhood senior center or community organic garden–or working at a parent’s office in the mail room for minimum wage.  

Again, we are forced back to the truth.  Real is real, and people know it when they see it.  For those of us who have paid for the pricey programs, we should not assume we have purchased anything more than an opportunity.  What our kids do with it, and how it changes them, is what colleges are really looking to understand.           

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  1. Back in the Dark Ages, a.k.a. when I was in high school, we needed summer jobs to earn spending money. It paid for movie tickets, pizza, and in later years, gas money to chip in for those who had cars, so we could double-date to the movies. We only had two months in which to earn spending cash for the entire school year (unless you could land one of those rare after-school jobs).
    I’m glad to know that today’s youth are not so deeply deprived as we were. I’m sure they will find other avenues of character building besides showing up for work on time, learning to deal politely with customers, and making change accurately. Maybe there is a ‘character app’ they can get?
    Some of these programs sound like they offer a chance to see and experience things many folks never do. That’s great, as long as the experience leads then, as Elizabeth says, to some encounter with truth. If they become, through this growth opportunity, a citizen with a wider appreciation of the world we live in, and a deeper respect for the circumstances of others, then it sounds like a good thing.
    As the author says, it depends on what you do with it.

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