Pre-college summer programs often give teens a taste of the most attractive aspects of college life: dorm housing, challenging classes and a parent-free environment. While advisers and program directors help students navigate their new surroundings, there are ways parents can help high school students prepare for the experience before they ever set foot on campus.
Mollie Garberg believes sending one of her daughters to a pre-college program to study neuroscience at Emory University helped when it was time to apply for schools.
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"She got a glowing evaluation and we attached it to her [college] application[s]," says Garberg. Her daughter, she says, is now in the honors program at Tulane University. Garberg, a mom of three who lives outside of Boston, says the program also helped boost her child's confidence.
"She understood what college was going to be like," she says. "She was excited about it." This summer Garberg plans to send another one of her girls to Brown University for a two-week summer program.
Academic enrichment programs for teens typically run anywhere from one to 10 weeks. Garberg paid about $3,000 to send her oldest daughter to the two-week Emory program. Some programs cost as much as $10,000.
"They're not cheap, but they're worth it," Garberg says.
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Experts say parents considering sending their kids to an academic enrichment program at a college should keep several factors in mind before committing to a program.
They can start by gauging their teen's maturity to see if this kind of setting will be a good fit. Freedom is a strong factor in almost every program. And with freedom, for underage youth, there is also risk.
"They need to understand that these kinds of college programs are not like summer camp," says Wendie Lubic, an independent educational consultant and parent educator working in the D.C. region. "They're not as supervised as a summer camp program would be. And that's the good news and the bad news."
Unlike when living at home, many high school students in a college prep summer program may have easier access to drugs and alcohol, and be tempted to engage in sexual activity, Lubic says.
She encourages parents to ask themselves questions about their teens such as: Are they taking on personal responsibility? Can they do their own laundry? Can they make their own lunch? Are they waking themselves up for school?
Parents who believe their child is ready to embark on a summer program should speak with him or her about how to handle mixing with different kinds of people in a new environment, says Jennifer Kogan, a licensed clinical social worker who works with parents of teens in the D.C. area. Parents should hesitate, though, before giving students rules.
"It's more a matter of not enforcing rules," Kogan says, "but just safeguarding that your teen knows what to do when they're in situations with other teens [who] maybe have different values in their homes."
Teens don't just need to be prepared for the social and personal responsibilities of one of these programs. Parents should be mindful of any academic prep work required by the program and investigate if the course load will be challenging enough for their child.
"College courses, especially during the summer, are very fast paced," says John Robichaux, senior assistant dean of the summer session at Stanford University, which offers a mix of for-credit and noncredit classes to students in high school, but is not a feeder program for the university.
"You should understand what the mission of the particular summer program you're looking at is. Some are moneymakers. Some are feeder programs," says Robichaux, who previously worked in programs for teens at Harvard University and Brown.
Parents should be cautious about enrolling students in programs that may not have their children's best interests in mind, he says.
"In a moneymaking operation ... they may forgo things like tutoring and advising and mentoring," Robichaux says.
Too many movie nights or field day activities, Robichaux says, are red flags.
For programs that are academically strong, parents can make sure students stay on task by checking in with them once a week, Lubic says. But please, don't call.
"If you want to reach out to your teen, text, because it's more respectful for kids who are at this age," she says.
Eric Theis, now a 19-year-old at Stanford, attended orientation at Stanford's High School Summer College with his mother in 2010. For the remainder of the program, he says, his parents were less involved.
"Once I was actually taking the class, it was pretty hands off after that," he says. Theis drove to Stanford several times a week to take an introductory class on computer programming while working at a tech startup.
"It was very doable," he says of the curriculum. "I just had to work at it."
He spent the following summer living at the University of California—Davis doing research in the school's Young Scholars Program, which he says was good preparation for living away from home.
"I definitely recommend taking classes on a college campus," he says. "It's a good way to show that okay, I can take an AP class, but I can also do well at a real university."
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Delece Smith-Barrow is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering graduate schools. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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