Summer programs that cement a high-schooler’s rich-kid status

When I was in high school I went to debate camp every summer. I distinctly remember thinking, when I arrived at debate camp at Bates College in Maine: wow, these kids are rich. They were from private school. I had never hung out with kids from private school. They were different. They had swagger. 

I wish my own kids wanted to be high school debaters. I’d be so good at guiding them. Instead, I’m looking at summer programs for science, and trying to learn how to navigate this world reminds me so much of trying to navigate the music world. For example this advice from a list of STEM programs:

Applying to summer programs is similar to applying to colleges. You should apply for reach, target, and safety programs. Keep in mind that these are reach programs for every student, so you should also apply for some target or safety summer programs to hedge your bets.

I go through a lot of websites; the deadlines are coming up and I don’t know what I might miss. Many programs go to great lengths to attract lower-income students. The most competitive programs are the ones that offer the most financial aid. Some programs are are insanely expensive, and less competitive. I am struck by two of the latter:

The University of Chicago Research in the Biological Sciences. This is a five-week program that gives high schoolers a chance to do hands-on research. The cost is $11,400 and the most a student can receive in financial aid is $4000.

Immediately I start thinking of the unadvertised programs where you can pay a science professor at NYC university to do research with your kid and write a recommendation for college. When I heard that the price for this program was $10,000 I thought it was crazy. But now it seems like a bargain because it’s a whole school year, and there’s a guaranteed recommendation at the end.

Launch X at MIT, Penn or Northwestern. This is a five-week program where you start a company. Immediately I think, I should offer this. It’s so easy to help a kid start a company. I’ve helped so many kids start companies. When I see the price I can’t believe it: $6700 for five weeks. I look around the web site to see if they have great food, or field trip to water parks.

There is a page of the companies the kids come up with and I can’t believe it. In the startup world, “traction” is the word you use to describe proof that there’s demand for your product. One company that produces a vertical farming system says they have an “agreement with JW Mariott for a beta test”. Are you kidding me? Why does Mariott need a farming system? This screams “My mom works at Mariott!”

Another way to show traction is to show funding. If someone funds your company then it’s a vote of confidence in the idea. Many of these companies tout their $500 in funding. Or even less. So parents spent $6700 so their kid can spend five weeks making a company that got $500 in funding from one of the parents that already spend $6700? Amazing.

I realize that I am like the professor who accepts money to do research with kids. I could easily help a kid make a much more impressive company. It would be easy for me and fun for the kid.

But both those options would require a kid to actually create something of substance in order to talk about it. Whereas if a kid goes to a name-brand program in the summer, that name is enough to create substance for the college application.

I have been reading about how colleges try to mitigate the rich/poor gap among students by creating a parallel expectations gap. That is, college admissions committees look at what a student accomplishes with what is available to them. So there are higher expectations for students with more resources  (read: wealth).

But what I noticed looking at these summer programs, is that colleges get crafty about admissions, then kids and parents get crafty about applications. And most of these summer programs are a way for rich kids to pay to make it look like they put forth an extra amount of energy given their extra amount of cash.

I’m not sure what I think should happen. The summer programs are not hurting anyone. I guess I’m just surprised by how structural the class problem is in academia; there is no real incentive to level the playing field. Instead there is incentive to pluck out the super-high performers from the lower-class before some other institution gets to them. And that’s what the most competitive summer science programs do best.

27 replies
  1. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I liked this post. I think the fancy summer camps are sort of a prelude to the unpaid internships these students will get later: an expensive way to get a leg up, and as you say, part of the way the class structure is perpetuated through academia.

    The Atlantic article was thought-provoking though not, I think, quite what you wanted. It was fascinating to read about how sexist idiocy is perpetuated at prep schools, even coed ones, but is that the difference you were thinking of?

    I’m also struck by how fine-grained the perception of privilege can be. You came from a family with money, grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, went to a top-ranked public school, etc. And when you went off to fancy New England summer camps for debate every year, you felt keenly the divide between you and even richer kids with even more privilege.

    Is this phenomenon infinite? Did those same kids go somewhere else they felt relatively impoverished?

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    That’s really insightful. I learned so much from your comment. I think I’m really motivated by preserving my kids spot in the class system. I feel crappy writing this. But I grew up upper middle class – the generation of my family after the trust funds were depleted. And I’m the only single parent in my generation in my family. So I’m acutely aware that my kids’ social status is slipping under my watch. It’s a bad feeling – to spend so much time worrying about this. I wanted childhood to be full of joy and fun and not worry….


  3. katie
    katie says:

    I work at a national lab. The very well-connected high schoolers get hired by the Lab for the summer (the Lab pays them, not the other way around).

    That said, I’m from a low-income, blue-collar family. Neither of my parents went to college. I didn’t have any connections (and did not do any summer camps in high school). I still managed to work my way through college and grad school and eventually land a good science job. Many of my coworkers have similar non-privileged backgrounds.

  4. Minami
    Minami says:

    I have the itch to call BS on college admissions’ mitigation of the parallel expectations gap, and whether it’s intended to be meaningful. The problem with this approach is that those parallel expectations tend, in practice, not to carry forward to when these students from low-income backgrounds actually get into these schools and are attending the classes.

    If they come from public schools, which as you say generally suck, they often end up needing a lot of remedial courses, because their school won’t have prepared them to handle college workloads or reading material. They may not even know such remedial courses are available to them, because nobody tells these students about them. Their parents likely didn’t go to college, so there’s nobody to tell them who to talk to, where to look for resources, or how to navigate systems which they’re often the first of their families to enter into.

    (As an example – the amount of young people from these backgrounds I’ve talked to who don’t even know about FAFSA is alarming.)

    So a lot of them end up dropping out – and then they end up with debt, no degree, and without the networks or resources to be able to lift themselves out of the cycle of generational poverty.

    I’d love to see studies on how of many of the students they admit through these parallel expectations actually graduate. It’s a well-intentioned measure, but if not backed by continuous support throughout the students’ entire college experience, maybe not a well thought-out one. This graphic from the Interaction Institute illustrates the concept of “equity” well (and how it compares with the concept of “equality”:

    But admissions departments would need to apply the “equity” mindset to the students’ entire college education – not just the admissions part of it.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Minami, you make some excellent points. I think you might be falling afoul of a causal fallacy, however. Hanlon’s razor might pare the matter down to the left hand of a university not knowing what the right hand is doing, rather than a planned disservice.

      In some cases, it’s not even a matter of branches of the same institution. As has been pointed out below, accreditation or classification of an organization like a school or camp can depend on things like class outreach or need-based subsidies. A camp may fish out the most qualified among needy students, and then see that student pass on to be someone else’s concern.

      That said, I agree with you that follow-through should be a major concern of a university equity office. I hope some progress is being made on that front.

      LBJ gave a great speech in 1965, in which he said, “You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.” Fifty years later, we see the consequences of not following through.

    • AA
      AA says:

      While in college, its up to the student to advocate for themselves and get the academic help if still needed. As far as FASFA, I have seen wealthy kids obtain financial aid. Heck , advisor told families, if you have assets over 1 million, put them in trusts and list them as 0.

      Its all a game and many kids are limited by thr lack of advocating for themselves.

  5. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I am officially shocked. Seriously. I can’t believe what I just read. You are worried about your kids’ socio-economic status? You think they will suffer if they don’t maintain your status? Do you think other people below your status are suffering? Do you think people below your status are beneath you?

    What if they make just enough money to survive? Is that a horrible reality? Is that unbearable?

    Is this how you felt growing up? That you had status to maintain? Will people respect them more if they maintain your status level?

    Just so you know, there are millions of people who couldn’t care less about this. They want their kids to be able to survive…but to acquire status?
    Status is about getting recognition from others. Why do you care what others think?

    As a kid growing up in a school district like New Trier, I was keenly aware of my lower status. I got jobs…real jobs with companies starting at 16. My dad was an immigrant…refugee…who became a cop. Can you get lower than that? My mom was a single mom without an education…and 4 kids. I was raised with a completely different value system.

    Life led me to an international career and adventures and places few people can relate to. Now I am a stay at home mom. My husband is from poverty…from a collapsed European country….and he is an engineering professor at a “prestigious” university.

    What class are we in? I have no clue what my son will do buy my guess is something related to money.

    Our handy man is one of the most admirable people I have ever known. If my son followed him I would be proud. He always said, “I sleep well at night.” He knows he cheats no one. Pure class.

    I am sorry that you suffer over this.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      “My dad was an immigrant…refugee…who became a cop. Can you get lower than that?”

      Lower? In my city, cops start out around 60K and ramp up rapidly to six figures. Average 132K. That’s well into the middle class. That’s nowhere near low.

      Is it better to criticize someone’s awareness of privilege from a position of privilege? Is that itself a privilege?

      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        He didn’t make a comparable salary at the time and I was speaking more about how he was perceived (low class and an object of scorn….and he was a bus driver when I was born…also not a middle class salary or job with status back then).

        I thought it was “noble” to be in the middle class or below (not that I think it is noble), I thought we were supposed to respect people who were not born with trust funds or silver spoons. I thought we were supposed to respect their grit. Agonizing about not staying on top of the totem pole is incongruous to me.

        I honestly don’t care about this except that it just seemed so antithetical to all the values espoused in this blog through the years.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think many readers probably had the same reaction as you, Katarina. Many readers of hers do come from humble backgrounds.

      However, it’s not surprising to me at all since I’ve been paying attention to her posts over the years :)

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        Are you more shocked that PT worries about her children maintaining themselves in the middle class, or more shocked that she admitted it in public?

        I’m not terribly surprised she has broken another taboo here. Ridiculing the rat race doesn’t make us above it, it’s just another marker of privilege.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Am I shocked, or Katarina? No, I’m not shocked at all. In many ways Penelope and I can relate.

          I don’t think that I worry about my kids earning a specific dollar amount. I trust that once they become adults they will be able to navigate their way in this world without needing to rely on us for everything like a child would.

          I think for me, as long as my kids are happy and functional adults I will be relieved. That’s what I worry about.

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            I tend to worry about things more when my personal circumstances are difficult. How about you?

            I am not too worried about my kids’ careers and lives when they are all grown up either. I expect that’s colored by the fact that I am now very comfortable financially. Being unconcerned about finances is a privilege I did not always enjoy.

            If I were, say, divorced, intermittently self-employed, and sleeping on the couch in a rental apartment with creditors breathing down my neck, I might feel differently. Wouldn’t you?

            I can’t see how PT’s honesty about this is really so big a departure from her honesty about other matters.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            It’s totally privilege. I’d love to have the time to be able to worry about things like whether or not my kids will maintain our upper middle class “status”, but my two book-end children have so much going on and need a lot of help with so many things that having time is itself a privilege.

            I like this post and Penelope brings up a lot of relatable issues to which I’m not sure whether homeschooling or traditional school makes a difference in this very specific end game.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Katarina, I am glad that you wrote this. I’m always glad when there is interesting discussion here, even if people think I’m wrong.

      In the US there is enormous class mobility for immigrants. In this country immigrants do very well. They work super hard and it pays off.

      In the US there is pretty much zero class mobility for people who are not immigrants. It’s rare for a family to fall very far, and it’s more rare for a family to move up.

      So I’m not telling you that you need to approve of me obsessing about it. But you should know that things are very different for immigrants and non-immigrants. In the US, whatever circumstances cause a family’s economic status to fall, the impact on the children means that they are not likely to overcome the circumstances in their lifetime.


      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        I don’t approve or disapprove. Who cares what I think?! I am just amazed that the idea of a lower social status for your kids (whatever that is) is so horrifying that it is ruining this stage in your family’s life.

        I was also surprised to realize that you must sense that there is something truly awful about people of lower “social status” or you wouldn’t dread your kids being forced to be among them.

        I am not judging anyone or anything. I sincerely feel sad that this is so distressing for you.

        I grew up and aged with a radically different value system. Between your comment and the comments of others, I learned a lot about how some people really think. I am always eager to learn that. I tried to explain a different perspective but it isn’t relevant to the discussion about summer programs, per se.

      • Savanah
        Savanah says:

        I am sorry you fee that way, but I disagree.

        I am the child of third generation immigrants who moved from a very high society in Asia, to another society where they were new and did not know the language and only had professional skills, and it took them decades to rise up to their original class. Then, they sent their kids to the Us to study and thought their kids would stay in that high social class they had finally re-achieved. Not so. Not only did they end up paying hand-over-fist to American colleges to educate their kids (while getting poorer themselves), but those colleges offered useless education – two years of rubbish general, off-topic and electives classes anyone? – and ultimately useless (liberal arts, anyone?) degrees. And their kids had to start at the lower middle class rung all over again. So no immigrants do NOT do “very well” in the US. If any, most immigrants of my social standing of origin have failed to re-achieve that standing in the West, and it is by design because this system is designed to exploit the immigrant classes until they are flogged to death, and then and only then is there some sort of carrot dangled to allow them to breath life again – in the form of greencards that allow access to more (though not necessarily better) jobs, and finally a second-class citizen status. Also, families with roots in the US have access to inheritance, life insurance policies from deceased family members, all adding up to buttress their wealth. Immigrants are rarely able to bring any inheritance proceeds over due to the way the tax system and financial markets are set up, and first generation immigrants often don’t have (or don’t have access to) life insurance proceeds due to the way countries are set up. So the second generation gets richer far less slowly compared to those who have been here for at least a few generations, and have become part of the “system”. Don’t put all immigrants in the same boat – we may have all come over in one, but we have classes just the same as you, and we have social standings just the same as you, and we have dignity just the same as you, and our past matters just as much as yours does. So next time you look at a newly-minted “rich” immigrant, consider that they might have royal blood running in their veins, and a pedigree that most generations of American citizens lack. Their thread-bare coats notwithstanding, they too can quote Shakespeare as well as their own intellectual giants. The question is – can you?

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    My thoughts are that if you want to play this game then you probably need to stop homeschooling…which I know you won’t do. My point is that there isn’t a hack for what I think you are trying to convey here.

    I hope my comments aren’t offensive or shocking to anyone, but it’s why I stopped unschooling. Because I knew it was antithetical to be an unschooler while at the same time be pushing for a certain outcome for my kids.

    Just focus on what you can do with what you have. That’s all admissions look at. What are they doing while homeschooling and how are they taking advantage of that opportunity?

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I think I have another comment sitting in purgatory somewhere, but I wanted to say that I think ritzy summer camps are not worth it.

    Don’t we always say that kids end up where their parents are, as in mobility? So rich kids can go to summer camps or not but it won’t affect them as adults.

    What do you want from the summer camp? The recommendation letters? Is there another way to get that without spending a small fortune?

  8. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    They bring in revenue for the bost institutions. They are business operations. Furthermore, departments are required to do “outreach” as public service offerings….in order to keep accreditation and compete with other jnstitutuons.

    If you want to spend your money and time there, why not?

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    What rich, entitled, or privileged kids don’t have is the innate ability to be more creative or better thinkers. They can have things made easier for them and more opportunities afforded to them but it doesn’t preclude kids with lesser means to even the score.
    “I have been reading about how colleges try to mitigate the rich/poor gap among students by creating a parallel expectations gap. That is, college admissions committees look at what a student accomplishes with what is available to them. So there are higher expectations for students with more resources (read: wealth).” This reminds me of affirmative action programs but instead of race, gender, etc., this is wealth or economic resource based. Thomas Sowell wrote a book named ‘Intellectuals and Race’. There’s a brief video ( ) where he talks about his teaching days at Cornell and the mismatch of black students whose average SAT scores of 75 didn’t serve them well as they were being taught at the average SAT score of 99 achieved by white students. The school’s attempt to be more diverse didn’t serve those black students who weren’t at the higher scholastic level well. Those black students would have been better served at another college where they weren’t struggling to keep up and taking remedial classes. All of this may be construed to be racist but it isn’t. What I’m saying is each person should be afforded the best education they are able to master and complete. That’s what would serve them best. It would be interesting for Dr. Sowell to study and write on this “parallel expectations gap” titled something like ‘Intellectuals and Wealth’. A bunch of masterminds at university admissions and their expectations of students based on their parent’s wealth. I would love to contribute to that book.
    I found this post somewhat depressing and yet realistic. A homeschooler less unschooled and more schooled to prepare for college. I hope he retains his motivation and curiosity to learn even when he may question his teacher’s ability to present material for him to learn or the reason why he should learn it. His success at school and life will ultimately depend on himself no matter how many resources he has at his disposal.

  10. jessica
    jessica says:

    Great post and great conversations here.

    I’m not surprised nor offended at Penelope’s goals. I think she is doing the best she can with what she has to meet all of the needs of her kids who happen to be exceptional in their chosen areas.

    I think making the choices clear and limiting stress as much as possible over the next few years will accelerate the plan. I realize this easier said than done.
    What does your son want to do?

  11. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    Almost all of my middle-class friends growing up are now working-class. Those with kids have really cut back, to be really the working poor. The families I know that are doing well have two working parents, and nearby very helpful grandparents. In my case we hit poverty just as the youngest was half-way through college, but to their credit, both kids knew the financial realities at hand, and took it in stride. They fought for their own accomplishments, knowing I had their back emotionally and they could always come home. Always. So, in the end I think my children grew up with more than I did, with real love and not abuse, and while the socio-economic status thing used to be real to me, it’s not now. Rich folk have their own problems … willingness to not be rich? That means I can afford to work part-time and semi-retire. My mom worked until her early death at age 68. My kids know more about finance that I did at their age, and their not frightened by it. That’s a blessing that richer families can’t always boast. Your kids will know, in their gut and in their mind, their mom loves them. You’ve already done more than our current president’s father did for him. Thank you.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      A really important thing here is the part about grandparents nearby. I think this is huge. And I think people who have this don’t have any idea how much it helps. Sort of like if your parents went to college you have no idea about the advantages you have — they are so intrinsic to your life you can’t imagine not having them.

      There is no emergency childcare situation when you have a grandparent. There are very few friendships that can handle the pressure of replacing a grandparent for emergencies. Increasingly I’m thinking having a grandparent around is essential to maintaining economic stability.

      It’s so hard for people to see that when they’re picking a spouse. Or when they’re deciding where to live. Every piece of research about happiness says living near family is one of the biggest factors of happiness. And I think it has to do with grandparents keep marriages together and marriages together means families are more likely to be happy.


      • sevanetta
        sevanetta says:

        I agree with this 100%. The families with young children who are doing best emotionally and financially have free babysitting on tap from relatives or grandparents living nearby (or in my parents in laws’ case… willing and able to fly interstate on a monthly basis).

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