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Counselors and colleges try to reduce ‘summer melt’ and ensure students enroll

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When JP McCaskey High School held its graduation ceremony in June, the students were all smiles. A sea of ​​black and red dresses, the event was the end of a teenage years marred for many by the pandemic and the loneliness, financial insecurity and stress that comes with it.

For Alejandra Zavala, a college and career counselor at McCaskey, it was a chance to see the results of the hours she spent meeting with students and going over the details of their college applications. But she also knew that in the surrounding city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 43% of students who intended to go to college last year never enrolled in September. This figure was 26% before the pandemic.

It’s a phenomenon education experts call “summer melt.” Students graduate with the intention of going to college or even committing to a school, but then life happens: work, family and fear get in the way. And the problem has probably gotten worse since the start of the pandemic; a tight labor market could also draw other students away from higher education.

It is difficult to obtain statistics on the number of students who say they will go to university and then change their minds. But Ben Castleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia who studies the summer melt, estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of students with college plans, depending on the district, change their minds.

“This summer there will be a significant portion of students who want to go to college, who see it as their post-high school plan, who find it hard to follow without additional support,” Castleman said.

After graduating from high school, students generally do not have access to the professional support they might receive during the year. But since 2017, the Lancaster School District has continued college counseling over the summer, helping students track the things they need to do to stay on track for college. The district uses predictive analytics to determine which students are most at risk of melting and give them special attention.

“When I was off in the summer, I would come back to a ton of emails from students,” Zavala said. “Now that we’re there, we’re definitely seeing the impact.”

In June, right after graduation, she began her summer job helping navigate the financial aid process with the 100 graduates she is responsible for.

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The Lancaster School District is approximately 60% Hispanic and 16% Black. The city has also earned the distinction of being one of the nation’s “refugee capitals”, with nearly 5,000 people resettled between 2002 and 2019, according to the bipartisan research organization New American Economy. More than 70 languages ​​are spoken in the school district. Zavala herself came to Lancaster County from Mexico when she was 8 years old.

Students from racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those from low-income families, are more likely to experience summer melt than other students. This means they might need more help.

“Our low-income and first-generation students are certainly the ones affected by [summer melt] the most,” Zavala said. “Especially our first-generation students, their families didn’t go through the process. They don’t know there is more to do after being accepted.

During the pandemic, four-year college enrollment has remained flat for Lancaster students, contrary to national trends. But enrollment at two-year colleges has fallen by nearly half, said Jeremy Raff, the school district’s college and career services coordinator, suggesting that students who would otherwise pursue community college are rethinking their plans.

Community colleges have been slower than their university counterparts to return to in-person instruction. Financial insecurity during the pandemic has also likely played a role in the phenomenon, as families struggle with their ability to pay for their education. This summer, a new factor is likely to be on the table for low-income students: the lure of high-paying jobs.

“Students may say, ‘I have a variety of good-paying job opportunities and I want to go to college at some point, but at least in the short term, maybe I’ll work for that the salaries are high,” Castleman said.

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Ibrahim Ntege, a McCaskey graduate in the spring, worked in a warehouse this summer assembling battery wires and cables full-time while also focusing on football, his favorite hobby. The son of Central African immigrants, he was accepted into several colleges, including Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities. He plans to attend Millersville University, a public college just outside of Lancaster.

Some of his friends, Ntege said, have different plans. They want to go to college but have decided to work for the time being to save money – something he said won’t influence him.

“These jobs that we do over the summer are not the type of jobs that we want to keep for the rest of our lives,” he said. “I’m going to go to college and get this degree and start making more money and I won’t have to work this 9 to 5 job and kill my body.”

Although many high school graduates say they will eventually go to college after taking time off from work, research shows that they are unlikely to ever do so. In 2018, of senior graduates who chose not to go to college immediately, only about 3% enrolled the following year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Lancaster advisers try to help all students outline their plans – even if they don’t look at higher education – but inevitably some don’t respond. Those most in need of help may be the least active in their search, Zavala said.

Sometimes the students come back. In July, Zavala was contacted by three students who had previously graduated, some dating back to 2019, and wanted her help applying to college after being in the workforce.

“Now that the [colleges] go back in person, they feel more comfortable trying and coming back,” she said. “They’ve been working for a while and they’re not happy in that job and don’t see themselves there long term and want to explore a career.”

Zavala helps her college students understand their financial aid and how much they are expected to pay. She uses a spreadsheet that analyzes tuition, grants, and scholarships to determine their likely debt upon graduation and potential student loan repayments. She asks students to think about their career plans and the amount of money they are likely to earn after graduating.

“If you didn’t have to go to school and you were stuck with that loan, would you be able to pay it back?” she asks them.

Financial barriers are not the only ones that stand in the way of students. Communicating with a college about housing, coursework, and orientation is a big part of getting ready to start in the fall, as are seemingly small things like just getting to campus. If a student can’t find transportation, that might be the last thing that convinces them not to go.

Even if students are successful, they may find it difficult to adapt to a new environment and give up during the first two weeks.

Some universities have tried to give some students extra help to understand how the college works. Ruvieliz Acevedo-Guzman is a recent McCaskey graduate who is expected to attend West Chester University in the fall. But first she had to attend a five-week summer residential session called the Academic Success Program, which helps students become familiar with the school and its procedures.

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“I thought I wouldn’t adapt too soon, but the first week I made some new friends. I got to know a lot of the staff here. I learned my classes for the fall. I’m learning about housing,” Acevedo-Guzman said. “I was scared of college because I was never really alone, but I think this program really helped me.”

For colleges and universities, it’s in their interest to try to prevent the summer melt, said Christopher Lucier, director of partner relations at Othot, a higher education analytics firm and former head of enrollments at the University of Delaware and the University of Vermont. That’s especially important because enrollment has fallen nearly 10% during the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“More and more institutions are beginning to understand the priority around it when they think about what they’ve lost in terms of net tuition revenue, enrollment and diversity,” Lucier said.

Every student, whether they plan to go to college or not, should have access to quality counseling, preferably from someone who already knows them, said Laura Owen, executive director of the Center for equity and post-secondary success at San Diego State University.

“The summer melt is nothing more than a data point telling you that we have huge hurdles for so many students,” Owen said. “We are losing students from the pipeline who we have to re-engage in a system that was really never designed for them to succeed.”

For Ntege, the simple fact that people pay attention to the problem makes a difference.

“I had a lot of people pushing me,” he said. “I think if all students had that kind of support, they would do better whether they choose to go to college or not. I don’t think I would do it myself.

This story about the summer melt was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to his higher education newsletter.

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