Parents faced with even tougher college admissions competition are scrambling for anything to give their kids a leg up in the process. That often means a battery of practice testing, tutoring, counseling, and sometimes a pricey summer experience at a school of their choice.
For the last 30 years several prestigious universities around the country have leased out their campuses to summer programs that let high school students spend several weeks taking classes, doing laundry, and wandering around campus just as any college student would. Other universities, like Harvard and Brown, now operate their own summer programs.
While parents often think that these programs will help their kids matriculate at a prestigious school, the gatekeepers to those universities—the admissions officers feared and courted by students and parents alike—say that these summer programs rarely give students an advantage when the time comes for them to apply to college.
“Going to a certain summer program will not be the tipping point for their admission,” says Muhammad Sherbaz, founder and CEO of the local college counseling firm.
At Brown University, about 5,000 high school students will cycle through the dorms this summer, spending between one and seven weeks on the Providence campus. They hail from all 50 states, according to Robin Rose, senior associate dean at the School for Professional Studies at Brown, and many are international students. In fact, a sizeable chunk comes from China, where a newly minted middle class has sprung up that can afford to pay for a short stint at a prestigious American university, he says.
Those students can choose classes from a dizzying selection in the summer course catalogue, taking anything from “Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine” to the more arcane “Ancient Egyptian Religion and Magic.” Brown also offers college prep courses on interviewing techniques and college essay writing.
“We’re trying to give them a taste of what it’s like to be on a college campus—everything from the level of academic rigor to being responsible for managing their time,” Rose says.
Other schools offer slightly more specialized programs. Stanford, Georgetown, Princeton, and the University of Virginia house summer programs run by the Junior State of America, which focuses on imparting lessons about civic engagement, says Larry Guillemette, chief academic officer for JSA Summer Programs. Its programs are completely separate from the universities that house them, and the vast majority of the classes are taught by instructors with no connection to the institutions. The one at Georgetown, Guillemette says, is the most intense, sending its students on excursions to meet with lawmakers while they study media and politics, international relations, or public speaking.
The price for these offerings is often quite hefty. Summer students pay around $6,291 for four weeks at Brown. Harvard charges $11,320 for its seven-week secondary school program. JSA Summer Programs charges $4,950 for three weeks at Georgetown, Princeton, Stanford, or UVA. For universities struggling to earn back the chunks of their endowments carved out during the recession, those fees are likely quite welcome, bringing in a steady stream of cash during the summer.
Many parents are willing to shell out the money for these programs because they think that their children may have a better chance of getting into a school where they spent a summer. “They see it as the leg up that it might provide,” Guillemette says.
But do these programs actually give students an advantage when the time comes to apply to college? Guillemette argues that they do. “Most universities understand that they are creating a potential pipeline for admissions to their institutions,” Guillemette says. “I couldn’t say for certain, but I could say anecdotally that that happens pretty regularly with kids who go to that program.”
Others caution against seeing these summer programs as a golden ticket to admission at a prestigious college. “This is not a feeder program for Brown, I want to be very clear about that,” Rose says. “Our goal is to help students explore an academic experience while they’re here. Whether they apply to Brown or someplace else, that is their decision.”
“We evaluate applications in a holistic manner, and no particular factor in the admission process is assigned a fixed weight,” says Martin Mbugua, director of media relations at Princeton. “There is no special consideration given to any particular program.”
Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations at the National College Access Network, agrees. “I think the reality is that they don’t really give a leg up in the college process,” she says.
Experts note that these programs can be beneficial if the courses students take further their academic and extracurricular interests, demonstrating a certain strength that makes the student stand out to admissions officers. “Don’t just sign up to sign up,” one says.
Our advice extends to any number of the pricy activities that students heap on their resumes to improve their college applications, they say. “If you’re going to Costa Rica to build houses, are you interested in architecture? Are you in Habitat back at school?” Sherbaz says. “Those are the tough questions that parents and students aren’t answering.”
He points out that some students can demonstrate the same interests at least as well by doing independent work during their summers rather than shelling out $10,000 for a structured course on a prestigious campus. A budding philosophy student, for example, might compose a reading list for the summer and attach it to his or her application to demonstrate that a depth of intellectual curiosity, Sherbaz says. That solution could be just as effective as a summer school course, he adds, and incur only a few dollars in library fees.
“There are many ways to skin a cat,” he says. “There are many ways to achieve your goal.”