CBO - Summer 2018

“Test Driving” the U.S. College Experience

Before committing to higher-ed in the U.S., consider a summer “pre-college” program

A generation ago, summer meant vacation. Students would relax, hang out, and pick up a summer job…

But as the acceptance rate at top-ranked universities continues to shrink, future-thinking students are increasingly spending part of their summer attending a “pre-college” program – a multi-week, residential opportunity for high school sophomores and juniors to explore the social dynamics, academic structure and independence that make up the college experience.

From top-rated research universities to prestigious art schools to small liberal arts colleges, virtually every U.S. college now offers some sort of summer pre-college program. And while admissions departments stress that attending a university’s pre-college program has no bearing on acceptance to that university, the benefits for students are still significant.

“It was a reconnaissance mission.”

“Pre-college programs are about growth and exploration,” said Jessica Loudermilk, the director of the University of California, Davis Pre-College Program. “The programs expose students to new experiences, which helps them make more informed, realistic decisions about where they want to go to college and what they want to study.”

Shawn Liu, a student from Ontario who attended the UC Davis program, described it as “a reconnaissance mission.” “I wanted to get to know the surroundings… get to know what the people are like, what the culture is like and use this data to put it into my final decision in deciding where I’ll go to college in the future,” Liu said.

This kind of pre-knowledge can be invaluable in helping a student identify (or rule out) a major before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a degree. It can also give students a better understanding of the kind of college environment they’re most likely to thrive in.“More and more students tell me they don’t want to have a bad first semester at college, flailing about wondering what to do,” said James Chansky, assistant dean of Pre-College and Summer Sessions at Brown University. “A pre-college program gives them a chance to prepare.”

A College-Level Academic Experience

Academically, one of the biggest benefits pre-college programs provide is the opportunity to explore a concentrated area of study or “major.” Most pre-college programs are developed based on specific strengths of the parent university and taught by talented, engaging campus faculty who are enthusiastic about working with the next generation of scholars. “I teach in the pre-college program because I love to pass on my passion for genetics, said Dr. Rebecca Bellone, the faculty advisor in the UC Davis Pre-College Program’s Veterinary Genetics major. “I like to inspire and influence students in the same way that my mentors have inspired me.”

The programs themselves are immersive, experiential and designed to provide both an overview of a field and in-depth experience. Students conduct research, go on career-based excursions and work directly with faculty, something that can be rare at the undergraduate level. “At Brown, our emphasis is on student-centered learning, not hours of lecture,” said Chansky. “It’s about faculty engaging with students, students teaching other students… It’s a very collaborative experience.”

The Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s Pre-College Summer Session (MCAD) expands on this philosophy by exposing students to working artists and designers through guest speakers and studio visits, said Lara Roy, the college’s senior director of Continuing Education. “A big component of the program is to explore what it’s like not just as a student but what comes after that… What it’s like to make a living once you graduate from college,” said Roy.

Along with exploring a major, pre-college programs also give students the chance to adjust to the difference between high school and university-level academics. “Pre-college programs aren’t necessarily about mastery of material, but about exposure to the challenges of it,” said Chansky. “We want students to reach, to stretch themselves.”

At Cornell University Summer College Programs, one of the nation’s longest-running programs, high school students take summer classes alongside undergraduates. More than 30 programs are available, giving students the chance to sample offerings within each of Cornell’s eight colleges.

At MCAD, students take “general ed” art courses in the morning (drawing, visual composition, art appreciation) and “major” courses in the afternoon (animation, comic art, etc.). This structure mirrors the school’s undergraduate program to provide a true representation of the art and design school experience.

Life Beyond High School

For many students, going off to college is their first opportunity to experience life without training wheels, without the support and oversight that have been around them since birth. This is a huge developmental milestone, but it’s also really, really easy to crash and burn.

Pre-college programs can act as a safety net, providing a safe, structured environment where students can acclimate to the heady taste – and challenges – of freedom. From time management to personal responsibility to simply learning how to live with a roommate, pre-college programs prepare students so they can make the most of life beyond high school.

“Most of our students have never lived on their own. Some have never even done their own laundry, so those first few days can be a shock to the system,” said Loudermilk. “But then they start to blossom. It’s amazing to see the amount of personal growth students experience over the three-week program. The kids – and their parents – walk away with the confidence that they will survive and thrive in college.”

Picking a Program

Picking the right pre-college program can be nearly as difficult as selecting a university to apply to, but by asking a few simple questions, counsellors and students can start to narrow the options:

What’s your passion? – Start by picking a few fields of interest. According to Jim Schechter, Cornell University’s director of Summer College Programs, “It doesn’t have to necessarily dictate their major or career, but what will engage them for the summer to be fully committed to the experience.”

Pre-college program subjects are becoming increasingly specific (“History and Politics of the Modern Middle East,” at Cornell, for example, or “Food and Agriculture Technology” at UC Davis) so it’s fairly easy for students to find programs that align with their passions. A simple Google search ([INSERT SUBJECT HERE] pre-college program) should yield a nice list of options.

What’s your preferred environment? – Beyond academics, a pre-college program is an opportunity to explore a university’s environment and culture. The student should anticipate the kind of college they might want to go to – urban, rural, large, small – and find the kind of university that reflects that.

Additionally, students should be using the program to see if “this is a place they can fit into,” said Roy. “One of the trends we’ve seen at MCAD is having more students who are transgender or gender fluid apply to the program. We pride ourselves on being an inclusive community and so we work individually with those students to ensure that we are able to provide them with an appropriate and comfortable living situation, as best as we are able.”

Residential programs offer the added benefit of experiencing dorm life and living with a roommate, so students should take advantage of that opportunity, if possible.

What’s realistic? – Pre-college programs are an investment in a student’s future, but they can be expensive. Look at the costs – fees, housing, airfare, etc. – and factor that into the decision-making process.

But don’t give up on a program just because it’s out of your budget! Almost every program offers full or partial scholarships, so don’t let money be the only factor driving your decision.

The Future of Pre-College Programs

Based on current trends, pre-college programs will increasingly become part of students’ university preparation path. Cornell University Summer College Programs for High School Students, for example, projects to enroll more than 1,600 students in summer, 2018, more than double the number of students from five years ago. “Given the competitive admissions process in higher education, students will continue to try to differentiate themselves with engaging summer experiences,” said Cornell’s Schechter.

At least some of the sector’s growth is expected to come from international students. This makes pre-college programs even more valuable, exposing attendees to different ideas, cultures and perspectives that are increasingly part of the college experience. The subjects offered in pre-college programs will also expand, responding to trends in higher education as well as student interest. Expect to see more programs with a connection to sustainability, social justice and entrepreneurship, and data security. “Curriculum will change to match social, political and socioeconomic trends… the ‘cultural zeitgeist,’ ” said Schechter.