For many high school students, living on a college campus is an abstract, and somewhat intimidating, concept.
Counselors, teachers, and parents can try to give a preview, but for some students to feel college ready, they need to experience campus life first-hand before they are actually college freshmen.
Increasingly, summer college programs for high school students are providing that opportunity.
"The more comfortable students are and the more they feel like they belong on a college campus, the better everything goes," says Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. Studies have shown a sense of belonging and competency contributes to student persistence and completion in college.
With partnerships between colleges and high schools through growing dual enrollment programs, transition courses, and P-20 councils, there is an increased effort to get students early exposure to college life, says Barnett. More colleges are reaching out to high school students because so many are entering academically underprepared and they want to help them have a solid foundation before they enroll.
Summer bridge programs to get at-risk students up to speed the summer before their freshman year have been successful, according to evaluations done by Barnett and others.
But colleges offer a range of college programs for rising high school sophomore, juniors, and seniors to give even earlier exposure to college life.
Syracuse University traditionally drew about 100 students for its Summer College for High School Students, but since recently adding two- and three-week courses, such as Sports Management and Introduction to Film, in addition to six-week courses, enrollment has grown to 350, according to Chris Cofer, the director of Summer@Syracuse at Syracuse University.
It's a competitive application process (about 500 students applied last year; the university is looking for 3.5 GPAs) and costly (the two-week residential program runs $2,000). But Cofer adds that about half of the students attending receive financial aid through the school or foundations to pay a portion or all of the cost.
In addition to the coursework, the college offers campus tours of nearby colleges and workshops on college admission preparation, such as essay writing. Most students are participating the summer before their senior year and the hope is that they return to their classroom confident in their readiness for college, says Cofer.
"It's a personal growth experience for young students," he says. "They become independent and become self advocates."
It can also be a chance to try out different areas of study before committing to a major. Cofer says some students say it is the most intensive experience they have ever had and it confirms what they want to do or what they now know they don't want to do. "Both are equally valuable," says Cofer.
The University of South Florida began offering pre-college programs for high school students three years ago with the aim of helping students get a better sense of career options so they could be less likely to change their majors once enrolled.
Kathy Barnes, the assistant director of business development and program management at the university, says the science, technology, engineering, and math programs, are among the most popular of the eight, one-week sessions offered.
The first summer, 85 students enrolled and this year attendance was up to 150 for the programs, which cost about $1,200 for a residential week and scholarships are available.
Students learn how to interact with faculty, find out about research opportunities, and receive career counseling. In the future, USF hopes to expand to offer sessions over spring break.
"This is the first time away from home for many, they stay in the residence halls and you can see how they start to blossom," says Barnes. "We are excited about the direction of the program and how it brings in students."
In addition to financial aid, some universities, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offer free programs to low-income students to address the concern that disadvantaged students can fall behind in the summer without access to the same enrichment activities.