Success or Scam? The Truth Behind Those “Prestigious” High School Academies

If you’re a college-bound high schooler, be wary of the invitations that find their way into your inbox. Not every summer program, internship or conference is as prestigious as it looks.

Each year, thousands of high school students receive fancy cream envelopes in their mailboxes. They’re greeted by certificates embossed with seals and pamphlets plastered with the faces of distinguished intellectuals. Alongside the seemingly prestigious papers is an invitation to join an “academy” for aspiring scientists or physicians, which grants members a chance to attend national conferences and brush shoulders with Nobel laureates. Best of all, the academies seem to give what every college-hopeful student desires: an edge in college admissions and a ticket to the school of their dreams.

The catch? The over $1,000 price tag for what is likely an unfulfilled promise.

Behind those fancy invitations is The National Leadership Academies, a for-profit organization that claims to support “America’s high-achieving high school students through career and focus-area programs and services.” It’s split into two academies: The National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists and The National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists.

However, a nomination to one of the academies is hardly prestigious. The organization sends thousands of these letters each year to lure high-performing students into splurging on their expensive programs. While the organization claims that it selects students on the basis of “academic excellence and leadership potential,” most students receive an invitation through a nomination by a teacher, participation in an honor society or the achievement of a high score on a standardized exam.

The organization offers several impressive-sounding opportunities that come at a price. It claims that its science research writing course is an “exclusive credential” and a “unique competitive advantage” that applicants can immediately seize. However, for a price of $1,295, the course is far from selective and offers nothing more than certificates signed by two Nobel laureates. It offers “internships” for aspiring doctors and veterinarians, allowing them to travel to exotic locations like Costa Rica and gain firsthand experience. However, the internships can cost up to $6,250, only last two weeks and are handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The National Leadership Academies’ biggest yet most controversial programs are its “congresses,” or national conferences focused on the sciences. Each year, thousands of high school students fly to Boston to listen to distinguished speakers and meet like-minded peers. The congresses are supposed to help students make connections with industry professionals and learn more about STEM, but they only last three or four days and cost up to thousands of dollars.

The congresses have met backlash from several attendees like Christian Gonzalez, who attended one as a high school sophomore. Despite his family’s financial struggles, Gonzalez scrimped and saved $700 for an event marketed as a life-changing opportunity — an action he would later regret.

According to Gonzalez, he spent most of the time listening to industry speakers and participating in icebreakers in an overcrowded arena. “I feel that I came out the same as going in,” he says. “They make it seem like it will help in the long run, [but] it’s not worth the time unless you have spare cash. It won’t help you with outside opportunities.”

However, Gonzalez’s sentiments aren’t shared by all attendees. Jessica Shupe, who attended as a graduated high school senior maintains that the congress shaped her life’s aspirations. She describes the event as “incredible,” “truly inspiring” and “motivating.” “I saw a woman who had a face transplant, a man with a bionic eye, a doctor who survived Ebola […] I took notes on every speaker’s lecture and still cherish those to this day,” she says. 

While Shupe isn’t sure if the congress was worth the $2,000 she paid, she’s completely sure of the motivation and confidence that it has given her. “I definitely feel as if the conference had a positive impact on me,” Shupe explains. “It clarified that I for sure wanted to pursue a career in the medical field and it showed me that I truly have a passion to help others.”

The National Leadership Academies might not have handed them internships or college acceptances, but both Shupe and Gonzalez have gone on to pursue their professional dreams and succeed in their postsecondary education.

Now a junior at East Tennessee State University, Shupe is studying Radiologic Science. She’s exploring her passion for medicine, a passion that the conference helped to solidify. After graduating, Shupe will become an X-ray technician and her work will help save and enhance lives.

As for Gonzalez, he is now at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s interned for companies like Microsoft and Google (which, for the record, were unaware of the National Leadership Academies). Gonzalez also volunteers for Genesys Works, an organization that matches low-income high schoolers, just like he once was, with free, legitimate internships that could potentially boost their college applications.

Summer conferences and workshops like those provided by the National Academies can be beneficial, but they won’t fulfill every high schooler’s desires. If you attend a congress, you’ll walk away with new like-minded friends, unforgettable memories and some inspiration from incredibly distinguished speakers, but perhaps not a seat in the school of your dreams. However, like Shupe, Gonzalez and thousands of other nominees, you have the potential to reach success in your desired fields, regardless of whether or not you attend this “prestigious” high school program.

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