The College Experience ... If You Can Pay

Pre-college summer programs grow in popularity, possibly losing their attractiveness to undergraduate admissions officers.
August 13, 2007

To ambitious high schoolers, a summer in the hallowed halls of an elite university seems like an ideal résumé boost -- even when those halls are without air conditioning.

For decades, colleges have obliged to that teenaged fantasy, opening their campuses to high school students for programs that bring in revenue and fill otherwise empty buildings. Summer programs report substantial demand, sometimes far outpacing supply, if only because of how attractive students and parents think a program can seem on a college application.

But as summer programs grow, the percentage of high schoolers in the job force has been shrinking with the passing of every summer. In June, just 48.8 percent of teenagers 16 to 19 had a job or were looking for one, the Department of Labor reported, compared to 51.6 percent in June 2006. Ten years ago, in June 1997, more than 59 percent of Americans in that age range were considered to be in the work force. Instead, they may well be in summer school, not to catch up to peers but to get ahead with enrichment and college-prep classes, raising questions for some observers about their value.
“Motivated students,” Linda Cross, a spokeswoman for Harvard Summer School, said, “will do whatever it takes to give them an edge when competing for coveted spots at the nation’s best colleges.”

For some, that means spending the summer at Harvard’s Secondary School Program (SSP).

The 41-year-old program has limited its enrollment to about 1,000 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors on campus for four or eight weeks of classes for college credit. Run by the university’s division of continuing education, Cross said the program has “seen especially sharp increases” in application numbers and enrollment for the last three years.

This summer, more than 2,000 students applied, though Cross declined to provide specific statistics. Though with Harvard receiving 22,955 applications for its incoming freshman class of 1,662, odds of getting into the Secondary School Program are higher than getting into the college. Since the applicant pool is less competitive, getting into the summer program -- even getting A’s in classes there -- does not mean a student will have the chance to spend another four years in Cambridge.

“Although we make it clear that admission to the SSP does not ensure acceptance to Harvard College, some students do come to the SSP with hopes that a summer on campus will give them an edge in their application to Harvard,” Cross said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to show you are capable of doing Harvard-level work by doing well … and to get a letter of recommendation from your professor.”

So, each year, some students who attended the Secondary School Program are admitted to Harvard College, while others are not. Specific statistics were not provided.

That’s just how Harvard and every other college with a summer program wants it to be, Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, said. “They kill two birds with one stone.”

“Colleges and universities see [the programs] as money-making opportunities. They’re ways to make revenue off of buildings that would otherwise be empty but still costing the institutions money,” Van Buskirk said. “And they increase applications by giving students a glimmer of hope that they’ll be able to get into the college because they got into the summer program.”

Students who get into the college where they spent the summer, he added, probably would have gotten in without spending the summer there: Their applications probably showed aspects of their personalities and accomplishments

Because of the “proliferation” of pre-college summer programs over the last decade or two, he said, “they’re increasingly meaningless.… A lot of admission folks have come to see them as vanity programs.”

Where students are trying to find ways to stand out, “one of these programs is really not a point of leverage for applicants,” Van Buskirk said. If anything, it can make them blend in with the crowd.

Nevertheless, blending in may be what students with strong applications need.

At Green Fields Country Day School, in Tuscon, Ariz., Chris Boyle advises students applying to highly selective colleges to choose summer programs that “show initiative, intellectual curiosity, ambition and so forth.”

After learning from the Dartmouth College admissions office that a seemingly strong applicant had been rejected because “his summers looked a bit soft,” Boyle, a college counselor and English teacher, said that at top colleges, some sort of summertime résumé enhancement is necessary for admission.

Van Buskirk acknowledged that if a student uses a college summer program to “do what she loves and love what she does, it really could help her get into the school of her choice,” he said. “There’s nothing better than to see the passion in a student when reading the application.”

But that passion may be for getting into a specific college, rather than for a specific academic interest, something that is sometimes rewarded.

About 10 percent of the recent graduates of Cornell University’s Summer College have gone on to join the university’s freshman class, though almost half applied, Abby H. Eller, the program’s director, said. She didn’t provide information on how many were admitted, though, nor on whether a significant percentage of the program’s alumni went on to colleges more selective than Cornell.

“Students are coming for the experience, whether that means pursuing an interest, testing out a possible major or career, or seeing what it’s like to be on a college campus,” she said. “For some, it’s that they really want to get into Cornell.”

A summer on campus can be alienating, said William Hollinger, director of Harvard’s Secondary School Program. “A summer at Harvard might actually convince a student that Harvard is not the right school for them,” he said. “And indeed, many of our students aren’t thinking of applying to Harvard, but simply want to experience an Ivy League college.” A student whose credentials mean he could never possibly dream of being a Harvard undergraduate can pay more than $8,000 in course fees and room and board for eight weeks as a Harvard summer student.

But is the summer experience on an Ivy League campus, or on any campus, the same as one during the academic year? Enrolled undergraduates would almost certainly say no, though programs argue that it is.

The Harvard program, on its Web site, says that “Many courses are taught by Harvard faculty who teach the same courses to Harvard undergraduates during the academic year. Credits earned are recorded on an official Harvard transcript and are transferable toward a future undergraduate degree at most colleges and universities.”

Though some courses are taught by Harvard faculty, both tenured and untenured, a scroll through the faculty list brings up many instructors who are in non-tenure track positions at Harvard, or from institutions such as Brandeis University, the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill and East Carolina University.

“If nothing else,” Dana Render, director of the University of Miami’s Summer Scholars Programs, said, “the goal of this program is for it to be like students’ first semester at school here. It’s to help them understand what college would be like specifically at Miami and in general.”

Enrollment in Miami’s three-week, $4,600 programs jumped in the last few years, from 94 students in 2000 to 195 students this year.

Render estimated that about a quarter of the high schoolers who go to university’s summer programs are interested in applying there, though the program is “not a direct bearing on admission.” Other students, she said, are interested in the subject areas of the programs, which this summer included sports management, forensic investigation, broadcast journalism, marine science and global politics.

Students “are usually bright -- sometimes gifted,” Render said, and are expected to have at least a B average when applying. Like most other programs, the application also requires students to write an essay and have a teacher write a recommendation.

Boston University’s high school summer program has “slowly but steadily grown” from 46 students in 2001 to 130 students this summer, Alexandra Adams, assistant director of summer term, said. Six-week college-credit programs there can cost more than $6000 including room and board.

Adams attributed the program’s growth to “the need to have an edge in applying to colleges,” as well as the desire of many high school students to test out life on a certain kind of college campus before deciding where to apply. “It’s another tool for them to prepare for college and to help them get into college,” she said.

Summer programs sponsored by public colleges and universities don't usually fit the pay for play model of most programs hosted by private institutions. Some publics have ethnic or income regulations and are free or low-cost. Others host honors programs open only to in-state residents who go through a rigorous screening process. Others, meanwhile, allow high school students to take classes for credit and may allow them to live in dorms.

Many mix summertime business models. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California at Santa Barbara, for example, each host a mix of low-cost university-sponsored programs and pricier programs run by private companies, like Musiker Teen Tours, which offers pre-college enrichment programs on both campuses.

Exploration Summer Programs is a mammoth of a private program, enrolling more than 3,000 students entering grades 4-12 for three- and six-week sessions. Its senior program, for students entering grades 10 through 12, is hosted at Yale University and the intermediate program is at Wellesley College

A non-profit, Explo, as the program is familiarly called, costs about $8,000 for six weeks of classes and living on the New Haven, Conn., campus. Instructional faculty at the program are not Yale faculty, but rather current undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom double as residential advisers who live in dorms with students.

Without declaring that it's an official program of Yale's, which it isn't, Exploration at Yale University -- as it is sometimes called on the program's Web site, is described as having close ties to the university. "Yale University’s Ivy League facilities set the stage for a fantastic summer of exploration," one blurb says. "At the Senior Program, you have access to some of the finest educational resources in the country." But they miss out on the resources of Yale's faculty and students.
Optional Princeton Review study skills and SAT preparation cost between $295 and $500. There are also a variety of trips that cost extra, ranging from $35 for a weekday visit to two New England colleges to $365 for a weekend trip to Washington.

Financial aid is need-based but limited. Once need has been established for a particular student, the student then enters a merit-based pool for full and partial scholarships. Grants of $500 are given to all students with demonstrated need. Administrators at Explo did not respond to several interview requests.

Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington college consultant who “as a rule of thumb [doesn’t] usually recommend these programs,” said that they can be most attractive to colleges when a student is able to play up the fact that he was awarded a merit-based scholarship or that she worked to earn the money to take an advanced course not offered at her high school.

“University admission officers have become desensitized to seeing these programs on an application,” he said. “Maybe they were special even five or 10 years ago, but now they’re just another way of differentiating between rich and poor.”

And just about all of the nation’s richest universities have them.


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