Alexander Holler, 17, was so excited about attending the Harvard Secondary School Summer Program that he skipped a month of high school back home in Germany to participate in the program. He arrived in Cambridge in June looking forward to rigorous courses, new experiences, and a taste of college life—but he is leaving Harvard with those expectations disappointed.
“I expected [the program] to be intellectually challenging, which it wasn't,” Holler said. “I prefer Europe [for college].”
Holler is not alone. Although high school students from across the world came to Harvard with high expectations, many students said that the program, which ends Saturday, is not worth its hefty price tag—$10,690 to live, eat, and study on campus for seven weeks.
Of the 12 students in the program interviewed for this article, most said they were not adequately challenged over the summer, and almost all said they do not plan to apply to Harvard for college.
“From how much it’s been hyped, I think it’s been a letdown,” said Issa Rahman, a high school student from Dubai.
Rita Pandey, assistant director of the Secondary School Program, said that the only complaint that administrators have heard about the program is that courses, which can be taken for college credit, are too challenging. While program administrators are not involved in the day-to-day process of teaching, she said, they make an effort to help students select courses that will be at the right academic level for them.
“We didn’t hear from even one single person that [the program] was not challenging because we have only found a lot of students struggling and finding [the classes] too difficult,” Pandey said.
But Rahman said that both his academic courses and his social experience were a disappointment. These experiences have affected his considerations for college. Coming into the program, Rahman was mainly considering Stanford and Harvard, but now is strongly leaning toward Stanford because of his dissatisfaction with Harvard’s summer school program.
Olivia Gebhardt of New York said that while she enjoyed the social experience of the program, she too was disappointed by classes that she felt were insufficiently rigorous.
“I honestly thought the classes were going to be a lot harder because [of] the whole ‘it’s Harvard’ thing. It ended up they definitely weren’t as hard as I was expecting,” she said. “But I really like the people here, and I’m going to be really sad to leave.”
Several students also complained about the program’s accommodations.
“I thought that the housing and food was going to be better, since it’s Harvard. [Since] they’re asking for $10,000 from every single person, I thought they’d have at least something moderate,” said Bricherland Quinones of Connecticut.
However, a few students did speak highly of the program. Susie Campbell of New Zealand returned to the summer program for the second year because of her enjoyable experiences the year before. Kelcee Gondalez of the Dominican Republic also enjoyed the new academic opportunities available at Harvard.
“It's certainly different, and I must say I am enjoying the culture. It's much different than back home," Gondalez said. "I think the education here is much better. The classes are much more diverse, which I'm enjoying."
Both neither Campbell nor Gondalez said they plan to apply to Harvard for college. Campbell cited concern that she would be unable to afford the price tag of a Harvard education and instead plans to apply to the University of New Zealand.
Still, most students said that, disappointments aside, the summer school program has expanded their horizons.
“I’ve met so many people from different places,” Campbell said.
This article originally ran in The Harvard Crimson Summer Journalism Academy newspaper, which was published on Aug. 9, 2013.
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