Harvard University college generic

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012.

Back in the spring, I got a query from an acquaintance who told me that a family friend had the chance to attend summer school at a capital-B Big Time American university. This program was a capital-B Big Deal for a really bright high school student. Would I write a story that would help the student raise enough money to afford to go? There was already a GoFundMe account.

I hadn't heard of this particular summer program — or pre-college summer programs beyond Governor's School and the usual music and sports camps — so I hit up the Google. Admission to this summer program didn't seem too difficult compared to the brutally competitive freshman admissions process. (Admissions were described as first-come, first-serve, an approach that zero elite college uses to admit undergrads.) The program cost a ton of money — more than a full semester at a UNC System school. And the website was full of vague promises that the program might lead to something more, maybe, once it came time to apply to college.

The whole thing seemed a little off to me, especially when the website promised that a student could earn college credit that might transfer to another four-year college. (I'd expect more for that kind of money, to be honest.) The program seemed not like college exactly but more like a fun and interesting but wickedly expensive summer camp. I passed on the story. Based on updates posted later to the GoFundMe page, the student ended up going. 

I was reminded of all that when I saw this recent story at the Washington Monthly website titled The Pre-College Racket. And it put into words the vague misgivings I had a few months ago:

These programs can offer precocious teens an enriching, hands-on preview of college life. But they also exploit both the allure of brand-name universities and families’ anxieties about an increasingly cutthroat college admissions process in which “summer experiences” matter. While even ambitious teens once spent their summers scooping ice cream or lazing by the pool, they now choose from a dizzying array of summer options, including trips to every corner of the planet and camps in every subject from robotics to equestrianism. ...

The popularity of summer pre-college programs suggests that many kids and parents see them as a good way to get a leg up on college admissions. And many universities, including Columbia and Johns Hopkins, explicitly encourage that belief. But admissions experts I spoke to were unanimous that, when it comes to getting into college, the benefits of most pre-college programs are negligible. The big winners, rather, are the schools themselves, who use pre-college programs to generate millions of dollars in revenue while relying on marketing practices that oversell the programs’ benefits, including elaborate admissions processes that imply a misleading degree of selectivity.

And while the target demographic is most likely the sort of upper-middle-class family that can afford expensive private university education, it’s clear that the universities are consciously drawing in families who struggle to afford the programs’ high costs. Some schools, including Stanford, distribute “fundraising guides” encouraging students to solicit contributions, including through crowdsourcing sites like GoFundMe. “With successful planning, creativity and resilience, students have worked with their community to achieve the goal of funding,” Stanford’s guide reads. “This is a great opportunity to gain leadership skills and connect to your community.”

The story goes on to note that admissions to some of these pre-college programs seems less about academic merit and more about ability to pay. These summer programs, the story suggests, might be little more than a money grab for colleges looking to cash in on their brand names when their classrooms and dorm rooms are empty.

Some students might get something out of these pre-college programs, like, say, a summer on a university campus. (That sounds fun, right?) Some of these programs do award actual college credit. And there's always a benefit to meeting new people, seeing new things and getting out of town for a few weeks in the summer.

But the Washington Monthly story is a cautionary tale: "(P)re-college programs may too often be selling big dreams, false hopes, and a tantalizing taste of an elite education that is ultimately out of reach."

Meanwhile, here are some other summer activities that cost a lot less than pre-college and also look good on a college transcript: community college classes, online courses, a summer job. You actually get paid to do that last one.

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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