Stay Sharp this Summer Without Breaking the Bank

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TIME magazine's August 2, 2010, cover story delivered a headline sure to strike fear into the hearts of kids everywhere. In "The Case Against Summer Vacation," author David Von Drehle worries that American students are falling behind children around the world, who in many cases spend four weeks longer in school each year.

According to the nonprofit National Summer Learning Association, 10 weeks of fun in the sun can cause students to lose a significant amount of what they learn during the school year. Summer learning loss is more common in children from low-income families: experts believe the majority of 30 million American kids who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches do not attend any kind of summer camp or enrichment program.

But while some summer programs carry up to a four-figure price tag, others are free for qualified students or offer significant considerable scholarships and financial aid to make enriching summer activities a possibility for all families. Here's a quick guide to avoiding the "summer slide" without spending a small fortune.

Tuition-free programs

Tuition-free summer academic programs can be found at some of the country's most prestigious colleges and universities. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) serves promising students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in science, engineering and technology. Rising seniors from low-income homes may attend the intensive Summer Journalism Program at Princeton University. And Pomona College's Academy for Young Scholars allows students from low-income or traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to enroll in undergraduate-level courses.

Admission to tuition-free summer academic programs is usually very competitive, with deadlines as early as the previous fall, so give yourself plenty of time to fill out applications, write essays and obtain teacher recommendations.

Other programs may be offered free of charge only to in-state residents. Arkansas children from low-income backgrounds will find a traditional recreational camp experience at Joseph Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp. Economically underprivileged children from Maine attending Camp Susan Curtis choose from an array of arts opportunities, adventure challenges, environmental education and recreational pursuits. Many summer camps for children with special needs are offered free of charge.

Tuition-free camps may require students to pay out-of-pocket for transportation to the site, meals or certain course materials (although aid may be available to help defray these costs), so make sure to inquire about any additional expenses.

Financial aid and discounts

Camps that charge tuition often grant financial aid or scholarships/camperships to children who may not otherwise be able to attend camp. Aid may be merit or need based, and campers may be required to meet certain eligibility requirements based on family income (such as qualifying for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program).

Summer camp financial aid funds may be limited and offered on a first-come, first-served basis, so be sure to start your search early. In many cases application deadlines for campers seeking aid fall several months before the camp's overall application deadline.

Many recreational camps that enroll a wide age range will offer sibling discounts to families enrolling two or more children. Early-bird discounts also may be available for campers who register by a certain date. At traditional wilderness camps, teens may attend as counselors-in-training (CITs) for a reduced fee, learning valuable skills that result in full-time counseling work in future summers.

High school students attending academic programs may also save on future college tuition if the program offers transferable college credit. A few programs operated by colleges and universities, such as the Miami University Junior Scholars Program, even guarantee undergraduate admission to students who successfully complete the program.

Other sources for grants and programs

Prospective campers may seek grants from outside agencies to help defray the costs of attending. Local civic organizations such as Rotary International clubs and Kiwanis may identify a specific number of high-achieving students and award grants to attend summer leadership camps.

Families should look to local nonprofit groups such as the YMCA, YWCA and Salvation Army that offer low-cost summer experiences, sometimes operating fundraisers so that underprivileged children may attend. Neighborhood public school districts, churches and community centers also enroll local students in affordable summer enrichment programming. Community college courses and online distance-learning opportunities allow older teens to study a topic of interest and bolster their college admission credentials.

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