My son was “nominated” by his 3rd-grade science teacher for what both the teacher and we thought might be a nice opportunity – a week-long summer camp that focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The camp is put on by the “National Youth Leadership Forum” (or NYLF) and was called “Pathways to Stem.” The teacher let us know that they had “nominated” our son – and only our son because of his interest in the natural sciences – and then, a few weeks later, we received this really opulent package of information about the program (see scan below).
When we opened the package, we were simultaneously impressed and disturbed by the contents. There were lots of gold seals and what looked like official language and endorsements.
But then we saw the price for the camp and balked!
Yep, you’re reading that correctly: $2,195!
For a week-long camp?!?
Our son has been doing summer camps for a long time since both of us work. The most expensive summer camp he has done has cost just over $200 – for a full week (most are around ~$150 per week). Granted, that didn’t include room and board, but the tuition only option for this summer camp was still almost $1,700, which is over 8 times as much as we had ever paid for another camp.
I hate to admit that we actually spent a little time considering this as a possibility for our son as we should have immediately been more skeptical. As we thought about it, we considered that college admissions are competitive and wondered if this might be beneficial. But we both quickly realized that, as college professors, we wouldn’t care if a student had spent a week at some summer camp unless that camp had led them to do original research and publish a paper or create some world-altering invention. That… That would be an impressive camp. But what was being proposed for this camp wasn’t all that compelling (see the sample schedule in the PDF below).
Even so, as busy professionals, we didn’t really have time to look into this right away, so we kind of just sat on it for about two months until I had a free day one weekend to look into a little more. I’m glad I did.
As it turns out, the National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) is part of a collection of camps and programs run by a for-profit company called Envision, EMI. The link we’d been giving in all of our paperwork (see the scans below) was to NYLFpathways.com, but that redirects straight to the main Envision website: envisionexperience.com. That was a little weird.
As I googled around, I found more and more information. Yelp actually provided some good starting places based on the reviews. From there, I ended up reading this very good (and amazingly balanced yet subtly critical) article in the New York Times. That article notes that there is no empirical evidence that such summer camps do anything for: (1) improving leadership or other skills in young people (they are too short and no one has tested their efficacy), or (2) improve the odds of young people getting into competitive colleges.
The Yelp reviews also pointed me to the Wikipedia article on the company, which has a very helpful section on “criticisms” of Envision, EMI. Not surprisingly, one of the main criticisms is that the company employs slick, high-pressure marketing techniques, like requesting that parents respond within 24 hours to reserve their child’s spot. Why do I have to respond in 24 hours?
The other Wikipedia criticisms focus on how the company doesn’t deliver on its promises of an amazing educational experience.
The Yelp reviews had largely convinced me that this wasn’t the opportunity it claimed to be. The New York Times article sealed the deal. The Wikipedia section was just icing on the cake. Our son won’t be attending the National Youth Leadership Forum: Pathways to Stem summer camp. I’d much rather take the $2,195 and buy him a 3D printer (~$1,000 and $1,000 worth of supplies) and let him design and print 3D objects all summer long. That is a much better use of our funds.
Below is a scan of all the materials sent, from the various letters to the teacher, to us, and to our son, along with the promotional and informational materials and even some scans of the envelope (the seal on which is shown above):
NOTE: Throughout this blog post, I have not used the words “scam” or “fraud” or anything like that to describe the company or the camp. That is intentional. Technically, the company is delivering “a camp experience.” That the experience is less impressive than what the company seems to suggest does not mean this is a “scam” or a “fraud.” I have been very careful with my word choices here so as to avoid a lawsuit or libel claims. I think it is safe to say that this company offers summer camps that are WAY, WAY, WAY more expensive than almost every other summer camp we have considered for our son (the one exception is astronaut camp in Birmingham, Alabama, which involves some pretty hands-on training and is still just $1,000). For instance, here is a list of available summer camps (for summer 2017) in our area. None of them come anywhere close to the cost of Envision, EMI’s camps. Again, that does not mean Envision Experience, Envision, EMI, or the National Youth Leadership Forum are a “scam.” I think it would be more accurate to describe what Envision Experience offers as very expensive, possibly under-delivering camp experiences for people who really want their kids to succeed but may not realize that there is no scientific evidence these camp experiences will help their kids succeed.