From the start of middle school, Duke TIP pamphlets and postcards began arriving at my house. It seemed like this vague educational program that was hosted by what my parents thought might be a good university. Personally, I feared it was one of those tutoring programs like Kumon or Sylvan that I kept seeing on TV, so I avoided it like the plague. But there came one point in my middle school career that I could no longer avoid Duke TIP, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I should first address a very important question, one that even I as a participant couldn’t answer for a long time…

What is Duke TIP?

Simply put, it is Duke University’s “Talent Identification Program”, aimed at finding gifted children across 16 US Southeastern and Midwestern states. The program has two waves of “Talent Search” one for 4th to 6th graders, and another one for 7th graders. It’s in the latter one that I found myself inevitable involved with Duke TIP. In this second waves, students take the SAT/ACT and depending on the score she/he can get recognized at a special award ceremony. I had zero interest in this, but due to strong parental persuasion I found myself in a classroom at a high school on a Saturday morning taking the SAT. Half way through I noticed I should be leaving responses I didn’t know blank, and by the end I was pale and tired and glad I was free.

I got a medal and certificate for my scores, which never proved to be useful. And for a long time I thought this was a program dedicated to have middle school students take the SAT. However, there several other serviced this program offers. If a student scores well enough on the SAT, she/he will have the opportunity to participate in Duke TIP Summer Studies, eStudies, Field Work, and other educational studies. There are programs for every grade levels, in a variety of topics, anything from Robotics to Architecture. This was what I was inadvertently ignoring when I discarded the Duke TIP pamphlets.

Was it worth it?

The 7th grade talent search did nothing to increase my knowledge about standardized testing or college. In fact, by the time I applied to college I had mistakenly taken the SAT every year of high school with not so great results. Then, I found that the ACT was a much better fit for my testing style and disregarded all my SAT scores. I really don’t find it effective to throw a bunch of twelve year olds in a classroom for a few hours with a test way beyond their academic level, and then give them a medal if they get a certain number that in the future will be too low for actual college admissions. But in the end, I feel the core of the issue I have with Duke TIP is that it’s aimed at a particular group of students and parents. As an immigrant, nobody in my family had gone through the American college admissions system before. Thus, I was not able to take advantage of the full potential of the program. Now on the other hand, to a family with parents that possess the knowledge of what the SAT/ACT are, this can be a much more effective program.

Moreover, all the affiliated programs cost a fairly large sum of money. They do provide financial aid, but the application process to these programs rivals the college application programs. As a twelve-year old, I did not yet have the skills to complete such complex applications, and I didn’t have US college educated parents to fill them out for me. All of these factors, make me look at Duke TIP as more of commercial enterprise that capitalizes on the desire of affluent, college educated Americans to prepare their children for college as soon as possible; in other words, just an extra hoop to jump through in the ever more rigorous college application process that favors a certain stratum in society. Through language like “gifted”, it really caters to parents’ desire for their children to be special.

Now, I won’t completely condemn Duke TIP; their programs do genuinely seem interesting and instructive: from trips to Costa Rica for high school students to study ethnobiology and tropical medicine to a course about geology and ecology on the Appalachian trail for middle school students. Yet if this program is truly meant to help talented students reach their full intellectual potential, it shouldn’t expose children to the rigorous test taking and application so soon and it should be much more accessible to minorities and other social classes.

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the author

Andrea Villa is a freshman at Stanford University, hoping to major in Comparative Literature or Art History, if her rogue interest in Astronomy doesn’t get in the way. Born in Bogota, Colombia but raised in Miami, Andrea’s upbringing has consisted of multicultural blend of Latin American influences. A strong believer in the power of hard work and merit, she maintains that financial difficulties do not have to be obstacles to success. As a Gates and Questbridge scholar, Andrea aims to spread awareness about these and other programs that lend a helping hand to low income students. Her life goals include publishing a novel and travelling everywhere. She is an avid reader of fiction, fantasy, historical nonfiction, and anything else that seems interesting. Andrea loves languages; she is fluent in English and Spanish and has studied French, German, and Japanese in the past. When not working or reading or studying, Andrea can be found restlessly looking for something to do.

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  1. Radhika Shah on March 18, 2015

    Read the article, and I can see where you’re coming from, but I would like to point out some of the positives about the program. Actually all that I can think of are positives… other than the cost of course. I visited Duke’s Marine Lab off the coast of North Carolina two summers ago, and fell in love. Taking one of these programs proved to be incentive for me to use marine biology as a focus throughout college. The information that I gathered throughout the three weeks has aided me during the courses I have taken in high school. The experiences that I had were phenomenal, and the friends that I have made are honestly ones that will be kept throughout my life time. Attending TIP was one of the best decisions that I have made, and do not regret even for a second. As anything you do in life, it’s really important to manipulate the opportunities to gain the effect that you wish. If you don’t participate in the events, or thoroughly like the course that you signed up for, you’re going to gain a more negative experience. However, the main intent for the program is to gain some insight as to what real research, and field work would be like. Again, it also depends on the courses that you take, but all of this proved to be really positive for me.

    Furthermore, I didn’t feel as if taking the SAT/ACT was so problematic. It allowed me to see what tests I would be taking in a few years. And truly, the program isn’t meant to be that competitive, just opening itself up to students who want to better themselves and go above and beyond the classroom. I was able to take full advantage of the program all while being from an immigrant family…

    • Andrea Villa Author on March 19, 2015

      Radhika, I am glad you had a positive experience with Duke TIP, like I mentioned at the end of the article, the programs and courses do seem very interesting. My main critique of Duke TIP is that it is less accessible to low-income minority students. Does that mean it’s impossible for a low-income immigrant or minority student to get into the program? Short answer: no. However, it is much harder for them to do so. In my case I couldn’t just ignore the cost of the program which would be equivalent to six to seven months of my family’s rent. Other classmates of mine faced similar barriers and our parents weren’t financially literate enough to help us fill out financial aid forms. Yes Duke TIP can be a great opportunity for students who want to better themselves, but it is only a truly viable option for students of certain financial and social circumstances.

  2. Maheen on March 19, 2015

    Duke TIP didn’t do anything for me. Currently a junior in high school, and I can say that all the program did was get me an invitation to an award ceremony that I never went to. Just take a class for the SAT/ACT in high school – middle school’s for mucking about anyways.

  3. talesofandromache on June 22, 2015

    Our son is in his third and final week of his first Duke TIP Summer Studies program; he’d previously done 2 scholar weekends he enjoyed. We have really mixed feelings now. He was so excited to go, even though he didn’t get into his first or second choice of programs. Everyone was really great when we checked in. All seemed fine the first two weeks-we didn’t hover (1 phone call the first day, once on his birthday, and a couple of emails and a birthday care package). He said he liked what he was learning and that his teacher and TA were good. We thought it was all going well…until we got “The Call.” It was on the last Saturday of the program while I was traveling and DH was meeting a client (and couldn’t grab his phone). There was a message saying there were “emotional issues” because he’d done poorly on a “test,” and a counselor would call us. The minute I could get to a computer, I wrote and then got a cryptic email from the site coordinator. I called and got an even more bizarre scripted response about how someone would call us. We’re still waiting to hear from the counselor–so it’s been a stressful 48 hours for us. However, DS called last night and seemed happy with activities they’d done in class for the week (though he really didn’t like the dances and big group activities on weekends–we’d hoped he learn to enjoy these in a low-pressure environment). What did I expect from my chunk of change? It wasn’t something ‘spectacular’ for his college resume. I wanted him to have a fun yet stimulating advanced educational experience with peers. I did want him to make friends and spend time with other kids rather than being in class or on a computer all the time–but I think I underestimated how much social focus there would be. It’s not my son’s strong suit, and while I DO want him to work on those ‘people’ skills, absolutely–we didn’t expect they’d be as stressful as they seem to have been. If we had it to do over, I might look for a smaller program or one that has small group social activities instead. But we think he has enjoyed the academic portion of the program. I’m just not sure it’s worth the money. There may be another option out there better suited for an introverted teen that mixes both high academic expectations with lighter social activities.

    • Elise on October 25, 2015

      I got my letter in the mail a couple of days ago and haven’t deciphered if it was a scam or if I should actually take the opportunity. Can anyone tell me if this is an actual program?

      • talesofandromache on October 27, 2015

        Yes, it is a real program, and it is very good. Overall, our son’s academic experience was wonderful. But the social gatherings (dances, etc.) were just not his thing, and it is a lot of money. If you like a great combo of challenging academics and fun social activities, I’d recommend the program to you. Good luck!

  4. CIndy on April 11, 2016

    Make sure your child is being taught by an instructor that is actually qualified to teach their STEM course. DUKE TIP often has a hard time finding qualified Computer Science and Engineering instructors and will often hire unqualified people to teach the course. A lot of these non-STEM professionals are hired last minute (A week before the semester starts) in a desperate attempt to put a body in a role.

  5. Martha on November 12, 2016

    Thank you for posting this. My son is in 4th grade and I need to decide if Duke TIP is worth the money. While I like the idea of him being challenged academically, I wonder how exactly this will help him. The financial cost is a concern though we’re willing to make sacrifices this is truly promising.

    • Martha on November 12, 2016

      If it is promising, we would make the sacrifice. How do we know for sure?

      • Katie on July 3, 2017

        So this post was started a long time ago but I have seen some pretty negative reviews about Tip and the Summer Studies program that I wanted to clear up. I am a rising high school sophomore, and this summer I just got back from my 2nd tip summer studies program. The first year (after 7th grade), I attended the mock trial course at trinity university in San Antonio. I absolutely loved it. The course was challenging enough that I was fully interested all three weeks, but not too hard, so that I wasn’t getting the material. My 8th grade year I had other priorities, so I wasn’t able to attend. This year, I went to Neuroscience on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. The dances, evening activities, and RC group nights are so much fun, and even for an introvert like myself, there’s no way to not enjoy yourself. One of the main reasons I love tip so much is that you are surrounded with people like you, who are voluntarily taking time out of their summers to learn new things, which is different from a regular forced school environment. The people at tip are some of my best friends, and I will always love the people I met at camp. While the cost is a huge burden on any family, if it’s at all possible to send your child, it is a life changing opportunity, one that you won’t regret.

  6. Sue on March 5, 2018

    Based on this blog post and the comments, Duke TIPs sounds like a big scam to me. Every one of you is talking about the money. You are all saying it is expensive. This is a way for someone to make money off you and your kids. There are lots of extracurricular educational opportunities that we are able to access that do not cost money or are clearly cost-recovery only (like the price of a bus ticket to a science meet). We will skip this “opportunity.”

  7. Debra Haven Perry Carter on October 15, 2018

    I couldn’t agree more with your bottom-line assessment, if the academic achiever has the financial resources, Duke Tip offers a splendid variety of educational opportunities, however, for those who are financially depraved, it is little more than a meaningless accolade.

  8. Aivy on October 29, 2018

    My 5th grader was invited to participate and am I still try to have knowlege of the benefits of the program. My understanding, this is a non-profit program and allow your child to have the opportunities to engage different activities with great diversity group of people. I agree that there are others program are offers similar thing, so what is this program has to offer which the rest don’t?

  9. SM on November 27, 2018

    Thank you for the editorial as well as reader comments. Helpful information. My daughter has received an invitation the last few years and I continue to ignore it for now. She’s only a fifth grader. I realize this is an older article but I wanted to point out that our local college offers countless, low-cost, both educational and just-for-fun summer classes for kids up through jr high age. If cost is an issue but you still would like to engage your kids in fun but challenging educational activities, check around at local colleges, or even junior colleges, for what they might offer. Just a phone call away!

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