It's not your imagination>: College students really are getting younger. A lot younger. This summer, kids as young as 4 will head for summer programs on college campuses the latest trend for cash-strapped schools and for parents eager to give Junior an academic push.
While colleges and universities have been offering summer programs to high school students for years, dozens have recently expanded their programs or developed new ones for students as young as kindergarten. For grammar schoolers interested in science, pre-teen would-be engineers, and third-grade math whizzes, prices can range anywhere from less than $200 to more than $2,200 per week. And while these programs may offer a stimulating environment for the preternaturally academic, they may not fulfill parents' ultimate expectation: an advantage down the road, when it's time to apply to college for real. "The programs aren't harmful, but it's not clear to me that a kid can't spend the summer reading [and be as well off]," says Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former admissions officer at Stanford University.
Regardless, in just a few summers, these programs have become wildly popular. Applications doubled for the summer engineering programs for elementary and middle school programs at North Carolina State University, according to a spokeswoman for the school. So far, the Georgia Institute of Technology has received about 550 applications the highest ever for the 375 seats it can fill, says associate director of summer programs Chris Thompson. At the University of Virginia, around 1,200 students as young as 9 have applied for around 790 seats this summer.
The programs and the price tags vary widely from school to school. Day programs are cheaper than overnight sessions, and art and language programs tend to cost less than those with a science focus. During a week-long science program offered by Boston University and other colleges in the Boston area, sixth- through eighth-grade girls engage in hands-on science and engineering activities like bridge building and developing computer games, for the relatively low cost of $150. At the University of Pennsylvania, a similar program runs $625. By contrast, spending a week living in the dorms at Brown University and studying science will run families $2,255. The payment includes room and board and more than a dozen classes to choose from, says a Brown spokesman.
And at many schools, costs are rising. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, the cost to attend its day camp program increased 14% this year to $325 a week. "Last year, we barely broke even, and it appears supplies for kids are more expensive now," says Thompson.
As colleges face growing financial pressures and states cut back on aid, raising prices and adding summer programs like these become viable options, says Joann DiGennaro, president at the Center for Excellence in Education. Because the summer programs typically use campus space that would otherwise sit empty, and because they tend to employ graduate students or adjunct professors to teach instead of full-time faculty, they are particularly cost-effective for a college. Many summer programs have been launched since the market downturn of 2008, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Colleges offering these programs counter say their aim is primarily academic: they want to enlighten the next generation of college-bound kids. "Money is helpful for the college, but it's also about exposing young people to science," says a spokesman at Brown University. Many new summer programs are focused on science, technology, engineering and math the number of college students who ultimately pursue a degree in one of those fields has dropped since the early 2000s, while need has only grown and university reps say they hope the early exposure will spark enough interest with students that they'll pursue this major while in college.
But critics warn parents to manage their expectations. A summer college program during elementary and middle school is more summer camp than college prep, says Reider. In most cases, students who aren't in high school don't earn credits, and colleges don't care: Colleges don't ask for an applicant's coursework prior to ninth grade, says Katherine Cohen, a private admissions counselor and CEO of IvyWise, which provides educational counseling to students. Admissions officers are more focused on grade-point averages, SAT scores and a student's overall academic acumen, says Reider. If anything, experts say, the summer program serves more as an opportunity for the college to market itself to students yes, even students as young as four than vice versa.
Still, many advocates say the college camp experience is worth the expense. For many working parents, there's peace of mind in knowing that their child is in a learning environment while they're at work rather than sitting in front of a TV, says Jill Tipograph, founder of Everything Summer, a Westwood, N.J.-based independent consulting firm that advises families with children and teens on summer activities. And the coursework can help students get a head start on classes they'll take in the coming year or years which may in turn help with those college applications.
For the second year in a row, 14-year-old Connor Shea hopes to head to college this summer. (He's waiting to find out if he's been accepted to a week-long engineering program at the University of Connecticut.) Last year, he studied computer science and statistics at the University of Nevada, Reno. His parents paid about $2,000 for the classes, but they say it's well worth it. Among the advantages, says Connor's mother, Lorel Shea, are the chance to learn with other advanced teens, and the opportunity to earn college credits.
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to adequately explain the advantages Lorel Shea sees in a summer college program for her son.