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Summer College History

A brief history of Cornell University Summer College

Cornell University began with a revolutionary idea: it aspired, in the words of its founder, Ezra Cornell, to be “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Today, almost 150 years after its founding in 1865, Cornell is not only the most academically diverse university in the Ivy League but also one of the world’s leading research universities. There is really no place quite like Cornell.

In keeping with its commitment to public service, Cornell was one of the first universities in the nation to invite intellectually curious and talented high school students to campus to enjoy the challenges and opportunities of college life.

For more than half a century, through a program now known as Cornell University Summer College Programs for High School Students (CUSC), Cornell has provided unparalleled opportunities for high school students to live and learn at a great Ivy League university.

As far as we know, the first Cornell summer programs created specifically for high school students were offered in the midst of the Space Race. In 1957 the Soviets had succeeded in orbiting Earth with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, followed in the spring of 1961 with the launch of the first human into orbit around the planet.

Around the same time, 1958 to be precise, Cornell Professor Walter Pauk launched the High School Reading Improvement Program, which invited high school juniors and seniors to Cornell (at a tuition cost of $75!) for several weeks during the summer to help them “develop the reading skills and study techniques which will bring them success in college” (page 36, 1958 Summer Session catalog). This program became the Reading and Study Skills Program in 1961 and continues today as CUSC’s College Success program.

In 1960, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Cornell offered a six-week Science Training Program for Secondary School Students. Juniors and seniors in high school were invited to campus to participate in research projects in the biological sciences or to take a course in chemistry, mathematics, physics, or zoology. Each course carried six hours of college-level credit.

And a year later, shortly after Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, and again with support from the NSF, Cornell offered a six-week Cooperative College–School Science Program for “high-ability secondary school students in the sciences and mathematics.” This program was designed to help identify gifted students “who have excellent potential for becoming scientists” (and perhaps some hoped these students would find careers in which they could help the U.S. compete successfully in its technological struggle with the Soviets).

In 1962, Cornell offered the first of what would become many “advanced placement” programs for high school students. (These programs were not related to the College Board’s AP courses and exams.) The six-week Advanced-Placement Program for Academically Talented Secondary School Juniors, for instance, offered college-level credit courses in bacteriology, botany, chemistry, languages (French, German, or Russian), mathematics, and zoology. Each course carried six credit hours (and featured a fee for uniforms and the option to receive maid service). The Advanced Placement in Physics Program, also first offered that year, carried eight credit hours.

In the wake of the success of these early programs, Cornell continued to expand its offerings for high school students. By 1971, for instance, Cornell had added the Exploration in the Visual Arts to its high school offerings. And by 1978, Cornell’s Summer Sessions combined many of these offerings into three main options:

  • The Advanced Placement Program, which had expanded to approximately 100 courses ranging from anthropology and art to physics and theater arts;
  • The Academic Skills Program, which prepared students for college study; and
  • The Introductory Program in Architecture, in which students worked on studio problems with direction and criticism from distinguished faculty from Cornell’s internationally renowned architecture program.

In 1983, Cornell University Summer College became the official name of these combined programs for high school students, which were attracting more than 700 students to the Cornell campus every summer. Programs in law and engineering were added, as well as seminars in classics, communications, visual arts, biology and health, and clinical psychology. Today, Summer College offers more than twenty programs for high school students.

In the past two decades, Summer College has made a strong effort to increase the diversity of its student population, working to support students who might be the first in their families to attend college and taking special pride in the fact that its students have been drawn from well over fifty countries around the world.

Over the years, Cornell’s Summer College has also set itself apart from other universities’ programs for high school students by offering college courses for transferable credit, taught by renowned Cornell faculty. Recent innovations include career and discipline studies offered in such fields as architecture, veterinary medicine, hotel administration, and engineering.

Well-known program graduates include actress Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame; Marci Klein, the Emmy Award-winning producer of shows including 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live; and U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer.

In addition, many graduates have gone on to pursue careers in their Summer College fields. Physician Dena Seifer Friedman, who studied biochemistry at Cornell as a high school student in 1973, says, “Summer College was my introduction to Cornell, and I fell in love with the place and ended up entering the class of 1978. I loved the class I took, and it eventually played a role in my decision to become a doctor.”

As Cornell President David Skorton has said, CUSC “is an unparalleled opportunity to discover not only what makes Cornell one of the world’s greatest universities, but also why Summer College graduates say their time here gave them the best foundation they could imagine for succeeding in college and, later, in their careers.”

Dr. Friedman, who also sent her two daughters to Summer College and Cornell, agrees. “(They) majored in the fields they had first been exposed to at Summer College. The program has played an important role in our family, and I hope it will be there for the next generation!”

Here’s to the next fifty years.

(See also "The 12 Best Pre-College Summer Programs" in the Huffington Post.)