Pricey summer programs raise fairness questions
College officials say no, but critics wonder whether specialized experiences give some wealthy students a leg up By Lisa Kocian Globe Staff
“Explore.” “Sail.” “Volunteer.” “Dream.”
Such programs have multiplied in recent years, giving students who can afford them amazing new opportunities – and perhaps additional pressures during what could be a season for lazy days at the beach and minimum-wage jobs.
But, as the college-admissions process becomes ever more competitive, another question about such programs emerges. Alongside high-priced application coaches and test-prep services, does a summer experience that costs anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 represent yet another way that wealthier students can gain an edge over their lower-income peers?
“If colleges consider the sorts of summer experiences that only some people can afford to pay for, then they are effectively privileging the already privileged,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a nonprofit research institution headquartered in New York City.
Kahlenberg authored a 2004 study that found at the 146 most selective colleges, 3 percent of students came from the poorest quarter of the population, while 74 percent came from the richest quarter. He said it’s not that admissions officers are biased against low-income students, but that they are not really giving a leg up to students who work full time over the summer to help their family.
College admissions officers say they certainly have to weigh an applicant’s internships or farflung adventures. But a student can have an extraordinary experience in variety of ways, not all of which cost money, they note.
Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, said high-priced internships can be “wonderful experiences,” but “in and of themselves, they will not give a student an advantage in the admissions process because the playing field is not level. The substantial majority of high school students cannot afford to do these things.
“I think there are many people now who understand there are plenty of activities, for example, working a full-time job in the summer or volunteer activities, that don’t have to be in Tanzania – they can be right down the street.”
During last month’s Teen Summer Program Expo at Newton South, 60 companies were offering summertime experiences, compared with 27 companies three years ago, according to Abby Shapiro, president and owner of CampSource, which organized the annual event. Over that time, the number of countries and community-service programs represented has also jumped dramatically, she said, and many programs offer financial aid. One of the newer trends is companies finding unpaid internships for a fee.
Two summers ago, Newton resident Amanda Korff obtained a month long position through the Internship Connection, a Newton-based company that charges $2,000 to place high school students.
Korff, who went to the Rivers School in Weston and is now a 19-year-old freshman at New York University, knew she wanted to major in communications, so she was placed with NewTV, Newton’s public-access television station.
She said she primarily wanted to see whether she liked broadcasting, but, yes, she said, it also was nice to get a good letter of recommendation for her college applications.
“The internship was really great. I was worried I wasn’t going to get a lot of hands-on experience.” But since the station’s operation is so small, Korff said, “I was actually able to work a lot.”
And that’s the point, according to Dr. Carole Jabbawy, founder and director of the Internship Connection, who has placed high school students in architecture, finance, and medical-research positions. “Nobody’s going to get coffee in my program,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s a real educational experience.”
Also, Jabbawy said, she is sensitive to the fact that not every family can afford such internships, so she adjusts her fee when necessary and gives out one free placement each year to a student who otherwise would not be able to afford it.
Robert Korff, Amanda’s father, said he didn’t feel as if the internship was necessarily for his daughter’s college applications, but was more to help her explore a field in which she was interested. And it was well worth it, he said.
“It’s hard to put a price on something like that when you’re talking about your kids.”
Jeffrey Herscott, an 18-year-old senior at Newton South, said he wasn’t thinking about college applications when he decided to do a language-immersion program in Spain last summer. He said he wanted to do it for himself.
He also was concerned about his contribution to the trip, which cost him and his parents $3,200, so he took a job busing tables at a Bertucci’s restaurant. Working helps build character, he said.
“That’s something I’ve always been keen on,” Herscott said.
Gil Villanueva, dean of admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, said that travel abroad used to be impressive but is now “commonplace.” His school looks for students who – whether they travel or not – show a desire to contribute to society, he said.
He casts a careful eye on an application if a student has traveled across the globe but is not active in his or her community, Villanueva said.
“While I think that’s exciting in terms of what that person might add to the campus, it might not be nearly as much as the individual who committed hours and hours in working for their local chapter of Habitat for Humanity or worked on their Eagle Scout project to enhance a park.”
Villanueva said he encourages families to take advantage of free information on collegeboard.com and other websites to plan an internship or other experience.
There are groups working to close the gap between the haves and have-nots in college admissions. The American Council on Education created knowhow2go.org to help low-income students prepare for college.
Harvard tells students to follow their hearts and not to see every opportunity as a requirement, according to its admissions dean, Fitzsimmons, who co-wrote a paper titled, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.”
Sometimes the most worthwhile summer experiences are not about exotic locales, but looking inside to find your own values, he said. “One of those experiences might be to catch one’s breath during the summer and recharge the batteries.”