It’s not uncommon to hear high school teachers compare the college admissions process to a race: There are hurdles, baton passes, the final stretch. But being accepted does not mean a student has crossed the finish line. In fact, the most challenging part of the process can actually come long after the cheers and oversize acceptance packets, and it's where many students get tripped up.
For the four months or so between confirming college acceptance and arriving on campus for the first semester, these teenagers are confronted with an increasingly complicated set of tasks that they must complete in order to enroll as college freshmen. There is complex paperwork to fill out. There are numbers to crunch. Many students find themselves realizing, for the first time, just how much getting their degree is going to cost.
And since most of this happens during summer vacation, the teachers and guidance counselors who coached them all through the college admissions process are no longer available to help. Their entire lives are about to change, and they find themselves without the support network that backed them up all through high school.
It’s enough to break 10 percent to 40 percent of students, according to a study from Harvard University. Rather than fighting through it, they give up. They melt away.
Educators call this phenomenon “summer melt,” when students who have committed to attending a college suddenly change their minds. It is most prevalent among students who planned to attend community college, and the majority are from low-income families, according to the Harvard study.
It’s not that these students lack ambition for higher education. It’s that the preparation is simply overwhelming.
The paperwork is monumental, especially for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It requires tax and financial information that many students have never dealt with before, and those who are the first in their families to be accepted to college don’t have their parents’ experience to fall back on. Some students come from families who are undocumented and don’t have tax forms. Some don’t realize the differences between loans, grants, and scholarships until they’re presented with a bill over the summer. Some work full-time jobs and don’t have time for setting up email accounts, dorm assignments, food plans and class registrations.
“It speaks to this gap in institutional support transferring from high school to college,” said Joel Snyder, a social studies teacher at Green Dot Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School in Los Angeles. “You could have a guidance counselor in high school, but even the most amazing ones can’t track all those students as they go on to college.”
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that each year some 2 million students typically enroll in college immediately following their high school graduation. This means hundreds of thousands of students are likely melting away over the summer. And the problem may soon get even worse, as the NCES projects that college enrollment is set to spike 14 percent over the next decade.
Supporting all those soon-to-be freshmen will be extremely challenging—but the Harvard study reported that interventions at the institutional level “can have a significant impact on alleviating the summer melt phenomenon and increasing college enrollment rates."
That’s why Snyder has helped develop intervention plans with other California Green Dot charters to address their schools’ melt rate, which hovers around 20 percent. One of these interventions is a launch-to-college event in April that brings alumni, college representatives and financial aid officers together to meet and encourage supportive transitions from high school to college. Snyder is also developing three alumni events throughout the school year to bring high school grads back and connect them with internship opportunities.
At KIPP Houston—which currently sees a 5 percent to 10 percent summer melt rate—a seven-member alumni team assists recent graduates of its charter high schools. KIPP Through College Director Bryan Contreras said each team member has a cohort of high school grads; they text, call and email their advisees at least once a week over the summer to make sure they’re submitting forms and to see if they have any questions about the process. The team also holds summer bridge activities that get advisers and students together to navigate health forms, financial aid awards and other paperwork.
Contreras said one student unexpectedly told him this summer that he was switching from a college in Pennsylvania to one in Minnesota because he was worried he couldn’t afford the tuition. This last-minute, $65,000 decision, as Contreras put it, was made without the student talking to an adviser. Contreras encouraged the student to meet with his team so they could work on finding the best financial package together.
“We see this as a baton race,” Contreras said. “This is the final leg. Students are fearful of change, so we hope to coach them through that.”
In New York City, the public school system recruits college students to work with recent graduates of 100 city high schools throughout the summer, mentoring them and encouraging persistence toward matriculation. Other intervention efforts involve additional preparation for school counselors and outreach to families. Some 1,700 high school counselors have gone through summer melt training, the NYC Department of Education reported. The department also tries to instill a college-going mind-set in parents and students early, with informational college nights starting in middle school.
While alumni are often the touchpoints for students, teachers sometimes take on that responsibility. Halley Curtis, an English teacher at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan, advises a group of six seniors in her homeroom throughout the school year. Curtis has sat with students on speakerphone with the IRS trying to untangle tax information for FAFSA. She’s taken students on college campus tours, visited their homes to help with paperwork and texted them to remind them about deadlines.
Curtis says she wishes she’d earned an accounting degree in addition to her master’s in education. She’s only half-joking.
Her six advisees all applied to college, and four will be attending this fall. The two who won’t got stuck on FAFSA forms, she said, but she’s still helping them aim for a January starting date.
For all the work Curtis sees her fellow teachers and school counselors put in, she said, she gets frustrated that it’s not enough.
“It’s not a good enough answer to have a teacher advocate because it takes so much from the teacher, and I don’t think teachers can do that sort of thing long term when teaching,” she said.
It’s a constant anxiety in teachers’ minds that no matter how much they try to help their students make the leap, sometimes it just isn’t enough.
“I would be fearful every time an [alum] would come back to visit because they might say they weren’t in college,” Snyder said.