Students analyze cost-efficiency and equity of summer programs, find alternatives

March 26, 2019 — by Shama Gupta and Alekhya Vadlakonda

Just weeks before summer program applications were due in early March, students filed into chemistry teacher Jenny Garcia’s and biology teacher Kristen Thompson’s classrooms, hoping ask for recommendation letters to support their applications. They fought for the last spot on their teachers’ list; the teachers had set limits on the number they would write.

Although many students deem summer programs to be a near necessity, their frequently high costs make them unattainable for many across the world, and sometimes the programs do not satisfy students’ expectations. The downsides hardly seem to matter in  affluent Saratoga.


Economic inequities

Many programs costs thousands of dollars for less than a month of curriculum. The California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), a program that  focuses on multiple STEM subfields, such as nanochemistry, marine biology and large data computing, costs $4,000 for four weeks. Other summer institutes, like UC Berkeley’s pre-college program, range from $13,700 to $15,000 for six to eight weeks.  

By allowing a student to show interest in a specific subject area, the programs can supplement a college application, yet it’s apparent that these programs add to the opportunity gap that divides rich and poor.

Critics, too, see this problem forming. According to The New York Times, Kimberley Quick, an associate from the Century Foundation, told the newspaper that “students who could not afford to spend their summers taking extra classes were being left further behind in what she called ‘the college access game.’”

Low-income students are also essentially blocked from benefiting from summer programs that give students credits or teach material that will help in future challenging classes.

As summer programs shift from being a burden for children who did not pass a class to being a sought-after form of education to get ahead, the programs start to advantage high class students and discriminate against less affluent students.


Worth of program

The other problem often overlooked when applying to summer programs is the overall worth of the program considering its costs. Typically, students take part in programs hoping to gain knowledge and new experiences, rather than looking at its cost and weighing the benefits.

Junior Elaine Wang, for example, attended COSMOS last year and a program at Smith College in Massachusetts in the summer of 2016.

There, student life is made to mirror a day in the life of a college student. Wang, who had chosen to study physics, attended lectures and lived in college dorms with a roommate.

But at the end, Wang felt unsatisfied with the result.

“I thought I’d go for some topics that I wouldn’t be able to learn at school, such as physics at the nanoscale. But to be honest, I don’t think I am going to use what I learned, since I don’t think I am going to do physics when I grow up,” she said. “But other than that, it was an experience — just something to do over the summer.”

Wang said that the program wasn’t a scam, though; it did offer her exactly what was promised. But in her opinion, a better choice is to simply apply for programs that “cost less and are more applicable to the real world, like research or paid internships.”

Despite her experience, Wang feels that some summer programs may be worth it. Factors like students’ prior knowledge in the field, their hopes for the camps and depth that the course goes into influence the effectivity and worth of the camp.

In her opinion, there are many cases that make these programs more of a fair trade. She said that if a student is highly interested in the topic, and they really want to explore more before they commit to it, the summer program can have value.

She also believes that the worth is dependent on what the student chooses to do with course material after it’s over.

“Some people were really interested in environmental science, and they finished their research [after the camp], which I think makes it more worth it,” Wang said.

In an effort to be more money efficient, Wang decided to apply for internships for the coming summer rather than to summer programs. She feels that the application process and the experience of an internship will be more rewarding than that of a summer program.


The advantages

Senior Hanlin Sun had a notably good experience with his summer program.

The summer before his senior year, Sun attended a program at the UC Davis called the Youth Scholars Program. Going into the program, Sun was already interested in the area of work that he applied for, bioengineering, and he wanted to continue working in a lab through that program.

This initial interest was sparked through a summer program he attended the year before, at the University of South Florida where he worked with mentors and a team and “realized he loved the team environment of bioengineering.”

At YSP, Sun was exposed to working in a lab and going through a project, along with having “an absolutely amazing experience in all aspects.”

He worked with a professor one-on-one and  investigated the genetics of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a harmful bacteria that causes billions of losses in agricultural losses every year.

Sun sees the Davis program as vital in his educational journey so far. “I am sure this experience will prepare me when I’m going into internships during college,” he said.

Along with the advantages the program provided him with on the academic level, his summer was also one that he enjoyed socially.

Sun said, “The kids I met were all great and had burning interests and passion in their respective fields of interests. We had a great time together and I still keep in touch with my friends from the camp.”


Alternate approach

Brothers Sajiv Shah, a freshman, and Dhruv Shah, a junior, have taken another approach on their summers for the past few years, one that interests them and minimizes the money spent.

Since elementary school, they have worked on and completed many projects in their free time, both together and individually. Sajiv said one of their latest summer projects was to build a “self-flying drone that is built to follow your hand,” which they did last summer.

Last summer they also set a goal to try and automate their house. Sajiv said that they used an Arduino and electronics to put a system on their garage door so that it can be opened from their phones.

To do this, they bought a basic coding platform online and locks to install with the automation of a doorbell. In total, most of the projects that they took on cost about $50. Their most expensive project, the self-flying drone, cost $800.

Sajiv said that taking on these projects at home helps him learn from his mistakes and teaches him how to approach challenges by himself while doing research on a topic that interests him.

“When you are taught something, there is a basic curriculum, and you’re given information,” he said. “When you’re doing something at home, you have to find out more by yourself. When you get into the real world you have to find out things by yourself so I think [taking on challenges alone] is really important.”

Sajiv and Dhruv say they don’t have anything against summer camps. Rather, they are just more mindful about the true benefits of the program.

Sajiv said he would apply for a program if the program’s topic is something he is already interested in, and he knew what the course material was.

“If I knew the exact credentials of who is teaching it, and if I knew that the connection that I’m making with the person that’s teaching me could give me more information or more access to opportunities, I think that would be very worth it,” he said.

Sajiv also noted that many students tend to boast about the program they plan to attend or the campus they will be staying at, but believes that his peers should pay attention to the substance of the program rather than the small details that do not matter as much in the long run.

“It’s what you do with what you learn,” Sajiv said. “It’s not where you go."