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.