A learner's guide to a luxury life

August 17, 2001

Fancy a cheap holiday in the Hamptons - playground of the rich and famous? Then enrol at summer school and you could bag a few study credits along with a tan. Victoria McKee reports.

The Hamptons is one of America's most exclusive and expensive holiday resorts. Hotel rooms are at a premium, while a summer rental can cost thousands of dollars a week.

But it is possible to spend a substantial part of the summer in ultra chic Southampton for a comparative pittance - and come away with college credits in anything from marine science to creative writing.

The summer schools offered by most colleges in the United States, and a growing number in the United Kingdom, are a very good deal in many respects, as well as being an alternative source of income for universities over the quiet summer season.

Courses on offer in the Hamptons include a writer's conference taught by the next US poet laureate, Billy Collins, with other famous writers such as Jules Pfeiffer on the team. For about $900 (£636), students can bask in the company of literati, earn one college credit, get much food for thought and enjoy a ten-day holiday that would otherwise cost a fortune.

"Our courses range from one to four credits at $502 (£355) a credit, but can be audited for half price by anyone not needing the credits," explains Carla Caglioti, summer course coordinator for Southampton College of Long Island University. This, she says, is common practice in the US.

Southampton College offers particularly good value accommodation in a very expensive place. "Accommodation is $240 in a shared room or $355 in a single room for as long as the course lasts - which could be up to 12 weeks, but is usually between one and four weeks," Caglioti says. "We ask that students pay $105 a week for a minimum of eight meals at the college.

The rooms are located on prime Hamptons real estate and within walking distance of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is no surprise that photography courses are extremely popular here.

Many American universities have seen increases in the number of students enrolling for summer courses this year. This is partly because of the economic downturn, which means US students have opted for more courses and new skills in the absence of summer jobs and internships. Another factor is that universities are increasingly trying to squeeze extra dollars out of their facilities.

In California, however, there is the added incentive of increased state funding for summer courses, which has driven prices down. The aim is to ease crowding during the academic year and ensure students graduate on time or early. From 2002, first-year students in California will be able to enrol in the summer and complete their degrees in three years instead of four if they regularly attend summer courses. The crowding problem is the result of a projected rise of 130,000 extra students over the next decade.

Competition for summer students is heating up elsewhere in the US, with some universities offering free accommodation or free non-credit courses in an effort to lure in the student dollar.

Competition is also high for foreign students. But although many of the courses offered are of the traditional arts and crafts variety, with those in the top tourist spots cashing in on their locations, some offer less leisure-oriented fare. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, offers subjects such as business and marketing and American, cultural and film studies.

The University of Hawaii runs cultural geography and marine biology courses for as little as $400 a month, including a room in student housing. Marine biology is a particular favourite in seaside spots such as Hawaii, the Hamptons and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, which boasts the prestigious Oceanographic Institute at Woods Hole and the Centre for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

Moreover, although many summer-school sessions are relatively relaxed, with some taking up no more than five or six hours a week, some are a little more demanding, such as an eight-week, eight-credit summer school course offered by Harvard University, which costs about $7,000. But then, students do get all those prestigious Harvard credits, room and full board in the quaint surroundings of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the chance to meet top scholars from around the world.

American higher education institutions have got the summer school system down to a fine art - visit the North American Association of Summer Schools website (www.naass.org) for a fairly comprehensive list of what is available. But British colleges, particularly those in summer resort areas, are fast catching on to the potential of summer study.

Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall offers a two-week summer school in print-making for £250 a week, while nearby Falmouth Marine College runs a week-long "surfboard design and construction" course for £5 that, if students are successful, should mean they "graduate" with their own specially designed surfboard to boot. For the most keen, there is even a Higher National Diploma in surfing studies.

One drawback in many parts of the UK is that colleges can often only assist students in finding cheaper accommodation rather than offering their own cut-price deals. But at Lancaster University - "gateway to the Lake District" - £295 will buy a week's accommodation with breakfast and dinner thrown in, and a course on country houses and walks, plus plenty of time for strolls through the local countryside.

Most summer schools end in August, but new prospectuses tend to come out in autumn. For cash-strapped students and academics who fancy trying something new, these courses combine cheap holidays with educational value. For universities, they provide an alternative way to make the idle summer months pay.

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