Rebecca Golub, 18, is a driven student. So when it was time to plan the summer after her junior year at Wootton High School in Rockville, she wanted to make it count.
“I’m a go-getter type of person,” said Golub, now a senior. “I wanted to know how my life was going to go.”
She applied to a fashion program affiliated with New York University, lived in the dorms with other high-schoolers and completed a for-credit internship, a dream come true for Golub, who is passionate about the industry.
Golub is among a growing number of high-schoolers taking advantage of academic summer camps on college campuses, programs targeted at college-bound kids. The programs have exploded in recent years, opening up possibilities for students who want to dig into a subject, test out university life or beef up their college applications.
Plenty of students still take a job at the shopping mall over the summer. But more high-schoolers — and even some middle-schoolers — are gravitating toward universities, especially in the highly competitive Washington region. They do it in part to be around like-minded teens, but many have their eyes on the prize: a way to be better prepared for college and get a leg up in the sweepstakes of the college application process.
“We live in a very competitive area and a very highly educated area. That competition can breed stress,” said Wendie Lubic, a D.C.-based education consultant. “I know some of my kids who are fabulous students who would get into better schools if they were from somewhere where there aren’t so many incredibly smart kids.”
High-schoolers can take almost any subject offered — scriptwriting, architecture, engineering design, forensic sciences, international political relations, anatomy — as long as their families can pay the sometimes-hefty cost or the students win a coveted scholarship. Golub’s four weeks at NYU cost about $8,000. Students who attend Harvard for an eight-credit summer pay $11,000.
Given the yearly cost of college tuition, now between about $13,000 and $35,000, many students no longer have the luxury of waiting until after they’ve graduated from high school to “find themselves.” They show up on Day One of college with a goal and a plan.
An academic summer program can give students a chance to learn more about a particular subject and maybe decide, before they’ve finished high school, if they want to major in it.
Before Golub interned at NYU, she hadn’t decided which aspect of fashion would be her focus. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do merchandising, and it was really bothering me,” said Golub, who started a fashion club at her high school.
After her four-week merchandising internship, she determined she prefers fashion public relations. “I’m a people person,” she explained.
Ry Arnold, a 16-year-old in Potomac, attended a 10-day engineering leadership camp at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He discovered it after the National Student Leadership Conference offered him a spot in the program based on his PSAT scores.
Arnold, now a junior at Winston Churchill High School, said he enjoyed the freedom of being away from home, and decided engineering would be his path.
“It was an inexpensive way to make sure Ry wanted to do engineering as a major in college,” said his father, Brian Arnold, owner of a home remodeling company. “Even though it was several thousand dollars, it was a lot cheaper than a semester in college.” The program cost about $3,000 plus airfare.
For some students, summer programs bring an academic focus into relief at an even earlier age.
Kehinde “Kay” Dosunmu, 17, a senior at School Without Walls in the District, said she took the SAT in eighth grade and scored high enough that she won a scholarship to take any college course through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Dosunmu, who lives in Mount Pleasant, chose a $1,200 psychology course at George Washington University. She took a six-week for-credit class the summer after her freshman year. “I plan on majoring in psychology in college because of my experience,” she said.
She also took a $2,000 two-week writing workshop at Duke University the summer after her sophomore year. She picked it because “I’m a writer. I write short fiction, and I was looking for some way to pass my summer.”
There was another benefit, too.
“I got to experience living in a dorm. In the fall I would have been kind of shocked. I’m really used to having my own space. I’m most comfortable alone,” she said. “I’m mentally preparing myself for sharing my space with others.”
For colleges and universities, the programs are a marketing tool and a revenue stream — and a solution to having empty campuses over the summer.
“They tailored the programs to high school students who could try out new career possibilities and could use these terrific facilities over the summer,” said Silver Spring-based education consultant Shirley Levin. “All while figuring out how to do their own laundry and live with a roommate.”
And there’s another reason. If students enjoy their summer, they’re likely to apply to that university.
“Colleges want more applicants. The more who apply the more they can reject, the more selective they look in the rankings,” said Diane Epstein, an education consultant based in Bethesda.
Although having completed a summer program does enhance a student’s application, colleges do not give preference to students who have attended programs on their campuses, according to both universities and education consultants. For example, if a student takes summer courses at Cornell University, that student will not have a special advantage to get into Cornell. But if a student impresses a professor over the summer, that professor can send a letter of recommendation to an admissions office.
The summer programs colleges offer vary widely.
Some, such as those at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University, offer credits for university-level course work. Others are run by private companies that affiliate with universities to use their dorms and facilities but not always their professors; some offer college credit, and some don’t.
Academic summer camps started mushrooming as college admissions became sharply competitive. Levin says she saw an explosion in them about 15 years ago.
“Competition became stiffer and stiffer, and families were searching for ways to enrich the academic experience, to look more passionate or motivated about what they were interested in,” said Levin, who offers workshops called “creative summers,” which teaches families about the myriad summer options available for teens.
In recent years, colleges began extending the programs to middle-schoolers, who live on campus for several weeks while taking non-credit courses.
Getting accepted is far less competitive than admission to the school year-round. A certain PSAT or SAT score is often enough to gain acceptance. “The application process is not as rigorous because it’s a revenue-making stream,” Levin said.
Most colleges and universities, public and private, now offer academic summer camps.
Families have to be sure their kids can handle a summer at college.
“There are students out there who have never had to do their laundry, who are so connected to parents by cellphone,” said Lubic, the education consultant. “It’s great for them to have the opportunity to be away.”
Some families are taking advantage of camps for younger children. In 2010, the University of Maryland started a “Discovery Program,” on topics such as science and government, for middle-schoolers, who either stay in the dorms for several weeks or commute from home. Almost 300 students have enrolled in the program since it began. This summer the cost is $2,500 for two weeks.
“The earlier you start telling students college is something you should aspire to, the earlier they will be interested,” said Terrie Hruzd, director of programs for the University of Maryland’s Office of Extended Studies. “It demystifies college and makes them excited at same time.”
A psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, Julian Stanley, started one of the first summer programs for gifted students in 1979 after he came across a seventh-grader who had completed all the math courses available to him at school. The program aimed to challenge extremely bright students. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has expanded to 23 campuses across the country (and one in Hong Kong) for students who test into it. Students from across the nation and dozens of foreign countries enroll, some for on-campus classes and some online. Most students pay, but scholarships are available. Students can sign up for the program as early as prekindergarten.
But such academic ambition is not for everybody. Some students do not excel with that type of approach, or prefer to simply take a breather during the summer.
“The first thing you need to think about is, how would you feel spending more time in the classroom?” Levin said. “Do you need to give that cerebral process a little break?”
Many universities offer other kinds of camps, such as sports, dance, theater or sculpting, she said.
“Summer is a golden opportunity for students to have some sort of a productive experience. It’s not productive to have nothing structured. You spend too much time watching TV or playing computer games,” Levin said. “Having a job is a terrific option. A regular sleep-away camp is a good option. Volunteer service is extremely important.”
With planning, some students are able to cover all their bases.
Arnold, who attended Georgia Tech for engineering last summer, said his plans for this summer are mapped out.
“My parents want me to get a job.”
Allison Klein is a Washington-based freelance writer.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.