Corrected: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of researcher Lindsay C. Page.
Switching his college choice in late June has made the summer hectic for Christopher M. Triplett, a recent graduate of Lindblom Math and Science Academy on the South Side of Chicago.
On his own financially and the first in his family to go to college, Christopher has relied on his school counselor, Karen M. Fitzpatrick, to make sure everything gets done so he can attend Virginia State University in the fall. He had to submit his financial-aid documents three times and had trouble logging into the online housing system for the Petersburg, Va., college. But, with his counselor’s help, Christopher said he is “99 percent” sure he will report to VSU in August.
“I’m ready to go. I’m focused. I know what I need to do,” he said.
Low-income and first-generation college students, in particular, can lose momentum when they leave the support system of high school. They are at risk of a phenomenon that educators call the “summer melt"—when students who leave high school with college plans never make it to campus in the fall.
Cost, anxiety about leaving home, and difficulty understanding all the college forms and requirements are among the most common reasons that students drop off the college track over the summer. Researchers Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page recently reported that the summer melt can be as high as 40 percent in some urban districts and 10 percent to 15 percent for students nationwide.
High school counselors have long known that summer was a “crazy time” to close their doors since students can hit so many barriers before enrolling in college, said Laura Owen, an assistant professor in the department of counseling and school psychology at San Diego State University. “Counselors intuitively knew that some of their students didn’t show up in the fall, but they didn’t realize how pervasive the issue was.”
With the new data and the push to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to and through college, counselors from K-12, higher education, and nonprofits are trying different strategies to make sure high school graduates matriculate to college. They are expanding summer office hours, hosting transition workshops, reaching out with technology, and even providing luggage and transportation to campus.
But, according to Ms. Owen, what students crave the most over the summer is “connection to a human being.” While communicating with social media and other technology can be effective, many need a caring adult to help navigate what can be a scary and complex transition from high school to college.
Connecting With Students
In Chicago, Ms. Fitzpatrick attempts to contact all her recent graduates with college plans—some 90 percent—and, using an online spreadsheet, goes though a list of detailed questions to see if they have done everything to enroll. “Sometimes, they don’t realize what they need,” she said. Plus, tracking the students gives the district some hard numbers to help figure out what works.
Lindsay K. Brown, a school counselor at John Hope College Preparatory High School in Chicago where about half of graduates go on to college, said her students are so mobile that it can be hard to locate them over the summer to walk them through the college process. Some are tempted to put off going because they are earning “real money” for the first time, she said. Others get tripped up over transportation.
Ms. Brown said she builds a relationship of trust with her students so they are able to tell her what they need and work through potential barriers. She has pooled her money with other teachers’ to drive students to college or buy bus or plane tickets. At a send-off celebratory party every August, she gives needy students donated luggage so they don’t have to bring their belongings in trash bags.
“You have to keep encouraging them,” said Ms. Brown. “Take whatever steps that you can take within your power to make sure they are successful stepping on that campus in August.”
Although awareness of summer melt is growing, efforts to address it are still too isolated and not reaching enough low-income and students of color to level the playing field, said Christina L. Theokas, the director of research for the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. College-transition and -bridge programs are useful, but a huge gap still exists for low-income and first-generation students.
“We need to think about coherence across K-12 and higher ed. in terms of where responsibility is going to be placed,” said Ms. Theokas, noting that each sector often thinks the other is doing the programming. “This leaves all these kids unsupported who could be successful in college,” she added.
To stem summer melt in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Victor A. Bradford, a college-transition and -retention coach for the University of Missouri, helps operate the College Connection Center, in the second year of providing free advising to college-bound students from June through August.The center uses in-kind space at Metropolitan Community College and receives support from the Greater Kansas City Foundation. High schools that have partnered with the project provide lists of seniors (1,343 this year), and where they intend to enroll in the fall, for the center staff to call. Mr. Bradford also gets the word out about the center’s services through social media and announcements on a local hip-hop station.
“The main hang-up is financial aid. They don’t understand the extra paperwork that needs to be submitted,” said Mr. Bradford of the income- and tax-verification process required to get government grants. When needed, counselors work to explain to students, who are often fearful of loans, that borrowing for education can be a good investment.
The center maintains a small emergency fund to give students up to $500 for such expenses as orientation fees or housing deposits. “Last-minute financial needs can keep them from going to college,” said Mr. Bradford of the students, about 80 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Greyson Norcross,who works with high school students in a rural area of southern Pennsylvania through the College Advising Corps, made a series of You Tube videos to provide practical information on topics such as study strategies and staying healthy in college for recent high school graduates.
Through an exit survey of about 550 seniors, Mr. Norcross got about 200 students to sign up for his new summer transition program. He sends out emails and short messages on social media to keep students on track and meets with any who need help on nearby college campuses.
“My goal is to promote the overall preparedness of the kids so they don’t feel sidelined during the first week of classes,” said Mr. Norcross.
Julian Lopez, a graduate of Biglerville High School in Pennsylvania, credits Mr. Norcross with helping him obtain a full-ride scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington and sitting down for more than two hours this summer to help him schedule his fall classes. “Neither of my parents went to college, so I’ve relied on friends’ parents or Greyson,” said Julian.
Other organizations, such as the DC College Access Program, a privately financed nonprofit organization in Washington, host large workshops on the precollege experience covering everything from time management to roommate issues to how students from diverse backgrounds can adapt to life at a predominately white university.
DiLexxus Mathis, a graduate of McKinley Technology High School in the District of Columbia, was among about 800 students who attended a DC-CAP workshop in mid-July that was partly a pep rally, of sorts, to motivate recent graduates to make it to college in the fall. (About 30 percent of participants melt over the summer for a variety of reasons, and the number has been fairly consistent since the program began 16 years ago.)
Although DC-CAP advisers are off six weeks in the summer, adviser Schelly Mitchell said she continues to help her high school students. “In education, your job just doesn’t stop,” she said. “If you aren’t physically on the phone or on the computer, they are always on your mind. You want the best for your kids.”
DiLexxus, who has no family financial support and is living with a friend, has leaned on Ms. Mitchell and counselors in the DC-CAP main office to help find the remaining dollars needed to pay for $40,000 in tuition for Temple University in Philadelphia.
“She is my confidant,” said DiLexxus of Ms. Mitchell, who has been her adviser since she was a freshman. “I can’t describe how amazing she is and how grateful I am. She wouldn’t allow me to give up.”
The admiration is mutual.
“She has a drive to succeed despite her circumstances and despite her lack of support and despite her living situation,” Ms. Mitchell said of DiLexxus. “The gift that she will give back to me is that I will come to her graduation.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as ‘Melting’ Off the Path to College