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Pricey summer pre-college programs won't get your kid into a better school

Doubts about pre-college summer programs

It's high season for high schoolers to enroll in summer programs at elite colleges and universities. The summertime campus stays may sound prestigious, but in most cases they don't carry the weight that their university brand names might suggest. Still, parents shell out thousands of dollars a week for their teenagers to attend Ivy League and other top schools' pre-college programs in hopes that it will give them an edge in the cutthroat college admissions process. 

Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard and Yale are among the colleges and universities that host academic programs during the summer when undergraduate and graduate programs aren't in session. 

"An Ivy League achievement for your college transcript," Columbia writes on the website for its pre-college program, which it says gives students "an edge over their college peers." 

Johns Hopkins insists its summer studies courses "will enhance your college application and add distinction to your educational preparation."

The cost to families? Anywhere from $2,000 for a week to $20,000 for a summer-long course, according to Christopher Rim, founder of Command Education, a college consultancy in New York City. A school can earn around $4 million to $5 million in tuition revenue in a single summer, Rim estimates. 

But the advantages conferred to students might not be worth the hefty price tag, unless they are genuinely interested in a particular course of study, experts say.

"They are a type of summer camp for kids. Your kid is somewhat supervised and is not running wild all summer — they are doing something academic," said Brendan Mernin, founding tutor and senior director of test prep company Noodle Pros. 

All in the name

Schools don't intentionally mislead — but they do rely on their brand names to attract customers.  

"The market believes they confer an advantage, but the universities don't advertise that they do," Mernin said. "They are advertising their caché as an Ivy League school. Wouldn't you?" 

Rim agreed that misperceptions about these programs abound. 

"These programs aren't intentionally misleading, but there are a lot of misconceptions out there. It's not that they are a complete waste, it's just that most programs don't help you get into college unless they are completely merit-based," Rim said. 

Even when nominally affiliated with a college or university, summer semesters are typically administered by a distinct department within the institution, like the office of continuing education, and aren't connected to undergraduate admissions. 

"Most aren't administered by the main college office or the deans' offices," said Christine Kim, a former assistant director of admissions at Yale and Georgetown universities. While acceptance isn't guaranteed, a high school record of at least straight Bs should suffice, she added.

Then there are those programs like Explo, which offers courses across a variety of disciplines and was hosted by Yale last summer, but is not affiliated with the university.

"Explo rents space and a lot of parents think, 'This program is at Yale, it will help my child go to school there,' but that's not the case," Rim said. 

Illinois Tech will host two Explo sessions this summer; the program is not returning to Yale. Explo says in the fine print on its website that its programs are run by Exploration School, a not-for-profit educational organization. 

Tickets to top schools

A summer program's price tag can be indicative of whether or not it'll help one's chances in the admissions process. Those that require students to pay tuition won't stand out an a college application, experts explained.

"It's not an equal playing field. If you can't afford to spend $6,000 for a one- or two-week program, that's not fair, so they won't necessarily factor that in to the admissions decision," Rim said. 

The most competitive programs — the one's the do actually stand out on a resumé — are almost always free.  

The Stanford institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, the Princeton Summer Journalism Program and Carnegie Mellon's Summer Academy for Math and Science draw top students and base their admissions decisions entirely on teens' academic interests and accomplishments. These and other merit-based programs are free for the elite crop of students who are selected to attend. 

"Really selective programs, like Research Science Institute at MIT, are as competitive to get into as some of the most selective colleges and they are completely free," said Kim, the former assistant admissions officer. 

Still those programs whose admissions criteria are more lax can serve an important purpose. They allow students to explore their academic interests in science, engineering, politics, literature and more — and also serve as a preview of what campus life is like.

 "They are basically harmless programs that provide useful revenue to universities that would otherwise have empty dorms, classrooms and dining halls," Mernin said. "So if it helps brick-and-mortar universities pay the bills and stay in business in the current difficult environment, I'm all for it."

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