Fancy College Summer Programs Prey on Rich, Nervous Parents

Are prohibitively expensive elite college summer programs ever worth it? Occasionally, if you're lucky (and rich), but don't bet your Ivy League acceptance on it.

Parents of high schoolers who want to spend seven weeks of the summer at Harvard have to cough up $10,490. Columbia University demands $7,736 for its three-week summer program. Stanford's summer price tag is $11,900 for eight weeks. Duke University takes in more than $780,000 a summer; 105 students at $7,450 apiece for four weeks really adds up.

But even the deans at these prestigious schools say the programs won't necessarily get kids into top colleges. “These programs are not a back door to the university, nor should they be,” James Miller, dean of admissions at Brown University, told Bloomberg. “It’s something that not a lot of people can afford, so we don’t want to advantage those who have the opportunity.” Trust him: the acceptance rate at the University of Chicago’s summer program is about 70 percent, while the acceptance rate for applicants for the undergraduate program is 8 percent. Ouch.

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Why are summer college programs at Ivy League schools gaining popularity if they're not that useful? “A lot of these programs really prey on the anxiety of parents about getting kids into selective colleges,” Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations at the National College Access Network in Washington, told Bloomberg. “It’s a revenue strategy. It’s available to those who can afford it.” Gotta fill those dorm rooms!

For years, kids and their parents have debated the importance of summer programs on College Confidential. "I got accepted by Brown columbia cornell and harvard, which kinda makes me think these programs are not selective," one forum poster wrote. "However just like my counsellor said, its all about how much you put into it." Lean In, coed style.

A critic of Harvard's program was more cynical:

1. It will not help your son get into Harvard.

2. It will not help your son have MUCH of an edge on college admissions. Colleges are well aware of these programs. They just indicate you are willing to shell out thousands of dollars. (So maybe it will help to prove you are a willing donor if you want to get your son in that way)

3. Admissions process into these programs, I feel, is to make the process sound prestigious. Many students far below the calibre of the college admissions process may get into these programs.

I have a friend who done one of these programs at Stanford. She was in the top 10% of her class. But did not even get waitlisted.

I spoke to some friends, now in their mid-20s, who attended pricey summer college programs; most said it was fun but, in retrospect, not worth the expense.

"I think what I really learned was what life on the different college campuses would be like," said one 26-year-old who took part in programs at Columbia and Amherst during high school. "I don't remember my Amherst program at all, but I did learn that life at Amherst would mean preppy kids getting drunk and hooking up and everyone gossiping about it, grassy quads, and walks to small town to get ice cream. I didn't apply there because I didn't want "those types of people." She graduated from Oberlin.

One Brown alumna, now 24, said she was glad she spent a summer at Brown during high school. "I'm not sure if it helped me get in — only one other girl out of the 50 or so kids who did the 7 week program did — but I met a professor who wrote me a recommendation for my application," she said. The two classes she took that summer went toward her degree, which meant she could take fewer classes as an undergraduate. Bonus! However, her parents paid for the program, which means she's hardly representative of most high school students in the country.

Although a few colleges provide summer programs for low-income students, the vast majority do not, which makes the rising pressure on already anxious high schoolers seem particularly cruel. Despite the deans' warnings, these programs offer yet another way for privileged college applicants to stand out. "I've read a lot of threads on this that all say that these programs don't matter much when applying to college?" wrote one College Confidential poster who attended Brown's 2013 summer program. "That is surprising to me; I would think it would show initiative and a desire for knowledge. It ought to show something at least that you take a few weeks, six in my case, out of your summer to study something as opposed to sitting around at home."

[Bloomberg]

Image via PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock.