As a high school junior, Anne Marie Urban spent seven weeks at a summer program at Harvard, receiving recommendations from professors there that she's sure helped her get into the University of Chicago.
The lure of Harvard endorsements comes with a hefty price tag: $10,490 for the program. It's much the same at other elite colleges, where summer courses for high school students have become a lucrative business.
While the colleges say they help prepare students for the transition to university, critics charge they give false hope of gaining admission, are unfair to poor students who can't attend and add to the debt burden by depleting parents' savings.
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"A lot of these programs really prey on the anxiety of parents about getting kids into selective colleges," said Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations at the National College Access Network in Washington. "It's a revenue strategy. It's available to those who can afford it."
Filling the dorms for the summer is a common method for colleges to make money, said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, an organization that works to expand student access to higher education.
"Colleges and universities are facing lots of budget pressure, and many of these programs draw $5,000, $7,000 or $10,000 per student in a few weeks," Merisotis said. "That's pretty good money from the perspective of the universities."
Columbia University, based in New York, charges $7,736 for its three-week summer program. At Stanford University, near Palo Alto, Calif., the price is $11,900 for eight weeks. Duke University, which doesn't offer financial aid, takes in more than $780,000 from its summer program, charging 105 students $7,450 apiece for four weeks at the Durham, N.C., campus.
Summer college programs are booming. Columbia's program began with 89 non-residential students in 1987 and hosts 2,130 this year. The Harvard Secondary School program, which began more than 35 years ago with 344 students, has 1,236 now. Both Columbia and Harvard are in the Ivy League, a group of eight selective schools in the northeastern U.S.
Attending a summer program probably won't bolster the chance of an acceptance letter from a college's undergraduate program, according to the schools.
"Parents should not see participation in this program as a way to help the student get into Columbia or any other university," said Kristine Billmyer, dean of the school of continuing education at Columbia. She said that 25 percent of summer program alumni between 2000 and 2012 did go on to attend Columbia in some capacity, for undergraduate, continuing education or graduate school.
"These programs are not a back door to the university, nor should they be," said James Miller, dean of admissions at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "It's something that not a lot of people can afford, so we don't want to advantage those who have the opportunity."
A summer job in a field of interest can be just as substantive, Miller said.
Daryl Sew, who graduated from New York's Stuyvesant High School at 16, passed up the chance to attend the residential Harvard Summer School last year because he couldn't afford it. Neither he nor his parents, an accountant and a homemaker, considered taking out a loan.
"I thought an internship would be more valuable than going into debt for Harvard," he said.
Sew, who plans to study computer science at Cornell University this fall, opted to work instead and take an online neurobiology course from Harvard for $800 after financial aid. He recommends that high schoolers try the free summer classes at City College of New York.
Sew made the right choice, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors Network, a Las Vegas-based operator of financial-aid and college admissions websites.
"If you need to borrow to attend one of these programs, you should think twice about doing it," Kantrowitz said. Parents looking to familiarize students with college life would derive the same benefit from "taking the campus tour."
Some high school counselors say the good use of summertime can be worth the cost. Lisa Sohmer, college counselor at the Garden School in New York, said her students have mostly enjoyed the Columbia program, among others. It provides students with an opportunity to learn material beyond the scope of high school offerings while living in dorms and experiencing a new place.
Columbia's summer program doesn't have grades or end-of- course exams and offers eight options every night to explore New York City. It also doesn't award college credit for the courses.
"We really free the students up to indulge their intellectual passions," said Paul McNeil, vice dean of Columbia University's school of continuing education.
An in-depth connection to a college during the summer, though, can sometimes be a source of regret later for those who aren't accepted into the schools as undergraduates, Sohmer said.
"I often advise students who have a first choice that they not do a summer program there," she said. "It makes denial even harder if they don't get in."
Students are far more likely to be rejected for the undergraduate schools because the summer programs tend to be a lot less selective. For example, the acceptance rate at the University of Chicago's summer program is about 70 percent, compared with the 8 percent rate for applicants to the undergraduate program.
Duke's new summer program accepted 50 percent of students who applied, half of whom were recruited from China, said Nicki Charles, director of international student recruitment at Duke's school of continuing studies.
China sends more college students to the U.S. than any other country, with almost 200,000 annually, according to the Institute of International Education in New York. Students who attend the Duke summer program will have the opportunity to take Mandarin Chinese, according to Charles.
International students are attractive to universities because "they come as full-pay students," said the National College Access Network's Morgan, who attended Duke.
There are some programs available for low-income students. Stanford's Medical Youth Science Program bolsters science skills while introducing students to health-related careers. The program is free for low-income and ethnically diverse high school students in California, said Marilyn Winkleby, a Stanford professor who founded the program in 1987.
"It creates confidence for low-income students to be able to come to a prestigious university, carry out internships, fit in with peers, interact with professors and gain respect for their intellect," Winkleby said. Ten undergraduates volunteer to coordinate the program and Stanford faculty donate instruction. The program also relies on donors like Leo Hindery, Jr., the former president of Tele-Communications Inc.
Stanford also has a broader summer college for high school students, though Winkleby said that "it's a business model."
"You have to be high achieving and pay a large amount of money," she said.
The universities that make their campus available for free to low-income students are an exception.
"That costs money rather than making money," Morgan said.