It is easy to assume that once high school seniors apply to and get accepted by colleges, complete the FAFSA and then deposit at the institution of their choosing having reviewed and accepted the proffered financial aid award, the hard work is done. Not so.
For many first-generation and low-income students, this is not how the “real life” college progression process works. As poignantly noted by Castleman and Page (C&P) in their valuable book Summer Melt, the summer months are deeply stressful for vulnerable students. Between high school graduation and the start of college, there are college forms to be completed and decisions to be made (related to financial aid, housing and course selection); there is student and family rethinking of choices made (or not made); there are intervening life events within the family; there is anxiety about leaving home, incurring debt; personal doubts surrounding capacity (both fiscal and psychosocial) creep in. Summer employment becomes a necessity but the use of the monies is complicated by family needs, personal needs and college costs that appear seemingly out of nowhere in the students’ world — for books, health insurance, orientation, an IT fee, a student life fee, course fees, lab fees.
Importantly, some of what derails vulnerable students may seem self-evident or easy for higher-income families who have the experience and expertise to navigate the myriad of issues regarding college progression. Those who have been to college know there are added fees. Those who have been to college know that pre-college anxiety is normal and not a sign that a student does not belong in postsecondary education. For first-generation, low-income students, it is like being in a new nation with a foreign language they do not yet know.
C&P report that 1 in 5 students never show up on their chosen college’s doorstep. For minority, low-income students, that number is higher ― in some locations, rising to 40 percent or more in some location. The excellent paper by Lindsey Daugherty at Rand provides key data points on this issue.
For these students and their families, this creates a distressing detour from a chosen pathway toward a higher education degree. For colleges, this results in diminished enrollment numbers, which for tuition-dependent institutions can have a sizable impact. Course sections are not needed; housing placements are disrupted; meal counts are off. For the federal government, this means that the goal of improving college completion rates falters and the use of federal student loan program decreases. For state governments and school systems, these data demonstrate that students or counselors “checking the box ‘yes’ for college admission” as graduates leave high school is not an assurance that college attendance will occur. This means the reporting of college progression as measured by high schools is flawed. There is a chasm between acceptance and attendance; it is the difference between desire and action.
For all these reasons, addressing and reducing summer melt is important. At present, there are a host of relatively small efforts in spots across the nation, some showing measurable success to bridge the gap between high school and college. C&P report on a series of effective approaches, including Summer Link and Summer PACE. There are similarities among the existing programs including some combination of summer outreach to prospective students including through social media outlets; peer and professional counseling at both the high school and college level; peer mentoring, telephone hotlines and in-person guidance. Some institutions have created incoming cohorts to improve bonding before college even begins.
Identifying the realities
The concern for me is that these efforts are not coordinated across the nation, and there is much more that could be done at all levels and among a wide range of interested constituencies: high schools, colleges, federal and state government, peers and parents. To create greater coordinated efforts, grounded in best practices and empirically supported and then measured on an ongoing basis, we need to reflect on these realities:
(1) While the federal government has a program for notifying high schools as to which of their students have not completed FAFSAs, completion of the FAFSA is the start, not end, point for students and their families. Evaluating financial aid awards, identifying quality means by which to meet the identified and required “family share,” completing needed loan paperwork all require assistance: first-generation students and their families struggle with these tasks. And, many of these documents have time constraints that can impact a student’s collegiate experience (i.e., whether they can afford to live on campus and whether campus housing is available). And, there is anxiety in completing the forms, sharing one’s financial condition and contemplating that the resources may not be there to enable college attendance.
(2) We need data identifying which students do complete the FAFSA and deposit at a college but never appear on that campus. It would also be useful to know if they appear at another campus. Once we know more about this type of student and whether there are patterns in terms of the colleges they were to attend or the high schools from which they graduated, solutions can be tailored. Strategies can be developed, informed by the data. In addition to curbing melt, these are students who at least at one point in time signaled an interest in post-high school education; they are a population to whom future outreach can and should be directed.
(3) Most high school counselors are not employed during the summer months, meaning that students lose their point of contact in terms of getting their questions about college answered and their concerns ameliorated. To be sure, it is costly to retain school counselors over the summer. And, given the caseload of many school counselors, they may not have intimate familiarity with their students and their families, including their finances in terms of college financial aid options. Also, they may not be familiar with all the aid options at the federal, state and local levels, and in terms of campus and foundation grants. This is particularly true if students intend to go to institutions that are in a different state and their own state aid is not portable.
(4) Most colleges have summer outreach efforts designed to engage prospective students but these are not necessarily coordinated efforts between financial aid offices, admissions offices, student life offices, orientation staff and academic advisors. Students get mailings (or access to a variety of documents online) and have trouble sorting through the materials, including distinguishing between what is important to do immediately and what can wait. True, there is summer orientation attended by many students if they can afford the trip to campus, but that two or three day session in late June, July or August is often not enough to cover the questions that continue to arise and the concerns that pop up unexpectedly. And, summer work schedules of prospective students might interfere. Add to that: some prospective students may not realize the value of orientation, its role in creating community, helping with campus navigation, and developing familiarity with campus options and opportunities. For prospective students, it may seem like expensive fluff.
(5) There is little cross-silo communication between high school counselors and personnel on college campuses to ease the transition across the educational pipeline. To be sure, this is not easy since there are not an abundance of counselors and students are headed to a wide range of colleges in geographically diverse regions of the country (and even abroad). Picture the fact that many colleges have summer hotlines for prospective students but counselors may not know about these hotlines and may not have suggested them before they departed for the summer.
(6) The schools, colleges and organizations that do have programs may not have empirically assessed these initiatives; moreover, they may not have shared them with other institutions for a myriad of reasons, including competitive advantage. Someone else’s melt could be another institution’s gain. Also, campuses likely try different approaches each year, depending on personnel, revenue, success of prior efforts and the like.
With these realities in mind, here are a set of options that are feasible to improve summer melt in a more systematized and system way ― using all constituencies to make college enrollment a reality for the more than 1 in 5 students who never actually show up for the first day of college classes. The idea is that these interventions work together ― as a collective. This is the opposite of a buffet where you pick two and leave two! The interventions are limited ― so attention can be concentrated. Rather than all flowers blooming, the key is to pick the key flowers and direct our attention to them ― intensively. If they do not work, then we can try other approaches. We also recognize that the data show that counseling with a live person is more effective with students planning to attend four-year colleges as opposed to two-year colleges. There is also a question of cost to be considered; lower-cost approaches that reach more students with effective interventions are preferred.
Some preliminaries: picking one region of the nation or one group of schools in which to pilot these initiatives makes considerable sense. Perhaps a focus on HBCUs or tribal colleges or small, non-selective private four-year colleges would be good places to start. To be sure, community colleges could benefit from these efforts too but the numbers are so sizable that it makes for more difficult and expensive to pilot. The data also show that this latter group may need more intensive efforts, making it worth considering targeting efforts to this group to see what efforts are effective.
Next, attention to summer melt has to start before summer. It may be called summer melt but that is the consequence not the timetable! Work on melt should occur starting in April or May at the latest, once students have completed the FAFSA, been accepted to a college, compared financial aid packages and deposited.
We also need to recognize that, for some high school graduates, direct entry into college may not be desired or even optimal. That is true. But, what is important is to distinguish between students capable of college-level work who fall by the wayside because the tasks to get to college seem overwhelming and out of one’s comfort zone. Experience tells me that for many vulnerable students, the strangeness of the experience is the barrier — not the capacity to succeed when in college with the right support systems in place.
One: We need new messaging and public service campaigns by the federal government, by states and by colleges. Start with the federal government. It should move beyond the current FAFSA completion project, which has been hugely important, to the next phase of work in terms of the college-completion agenda: moving students who have completed the FAFSA to showing up at college ― not just depositing and registering.
There are several steps the government could take to this end, in addition to gathering and releasing data on the students who complete the forms but do not attend. There could be a public service campaign around avoiding summer melt. It could appear in locations where students frequent or work — movie theaters, malls, fast food locations, churches, radio stations, Internet sites. There could be emails or better yet texts to all students who completed FAFSAs, letting them know that there are resources for easing the entry into college.
State governments and school systems could work together to showcase how passage of the Common Core tests (whatever they are: Smarter Balanced Assessment, PARCC or some state-designed device) are making students “college ready.” The messaging is that if students pass these tests, they can make it in college. Positive messaging like this works to diminish the academic anxiety prospective college students may feel. The point is that if students pass these tests, they will not need the level of remediation previously required. Of course, this campaign assumes the reality that undergirds the testing and the Common Core and the identified cut scores. We may not be ready for or have the data to support this intervention yet.
Two: We need to identify high schools and colleges that are willing to work together over the summer months, if not before, to get students ready for college. The school counselors will need added professional training, as they may not be familiar with the myriad of summer issues that arise. Colleges can make staff available ― regularly and consistently over the summer to both work with the counselors and with students and their parents.
Colleges can start to improve their effort by simplifying their forms, coordinating their mailings, identifying the priorities, providing text reminders of what is needed imminently. C&P, for example, identified eight text messages that could go to students and parents over the summer — reminding them to complete certain items or ask questions.
I also think that colleges can message differently when they communicate to students about completion of the forms that are sent or appear online. Put yourself in the place of a prospective student and gauge your reaction to a communication from your new college that says: We need you to complete X; you did not complete Y accurately; we do not have your housing or insurance forms. These are anxiety-provoking messages. Why not try more positive wording like: We need your help; we are here to help you finish form X; we want to assist you in arranging on-campus housing: can we call you?
That said, I do not think anything substitutes for human interaction ― indeed, I suspect that human interaction on the phone or in person is key to curbing melt. The voice of a peer, an iChat with an advisor, an in-person meeting with a counselor in one’s neighborhood who can and will connect with the key college personnel are key. I am reminded of Jose Antonio Bowen’s book, Teaching Naked, where he suggests that technology alone is not pedagogically sound. Students need human engagement. The same is true for prospective students. This observation leads us to the next and perhaps most important suggestion.
Three: We need to provide graduating high school students with online, phone-accessible modules that are monitored by college personnel, modules designed to encourage deep engagement and prepare new students for college. Ideally, the modules would be tailored to the particular college although one could envision a more generic set of modules that could be implemented.
These modules would enable prospective students to get to know each other and at least several on-campus personnel. This could be done through text or photos or videos or music. There would be a module explaining and facilitating registration for courses and how to think about course selection. There would be a module introducing students to the key campus personnel they are likely to meet ― and the role of these individuals. There would be a module with a shared reading where the prospective students worked independently and in teams to prepare and then share thoughts; there would be a module about a school’s mission and goals for its students and what students can hope for and expect from a college ― and what they need to do to make those goals work for them. There would be a module on identity and inclusion. There would be a module deconstructing a college syllabus.
Picture that there were eight “standard” modules developed that each college could then modify to meet their particular needs and population. For small colleges, one or two campus personnel could spend 10 to 15 hours a week on moderating and commenting on the activities in these modules. Yes, there is an expense but there is a greater expense when enrollment is down 5 to 10 percent because of students who did not actually appear for classes. Moreover, the monitoring staff would learn a good deal about these students — not only to identify them when they arrive but in terms of their skill sets, comfort level, engagement interest, timeliness, organizational skills. Colleges could be “ready” for their students through the analysis of these modules. And, on top of that, this knowledge could allow for retention improvement.
No one wants summer melt. Everyone wants students who are admitted to college to show up on a campus that is a good fit academically, socially, fiscally and succeed, as evidenced by graduation and quality employment or graduate school. We know that does not happen. It’s time to get serious about coordinated scalable efforts to ameliorate melt. That will happen when the federal and state government, colleges and high schools work together ― including with community organizations ― to make the promise of college real. And, contrary to the old adage that you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink, you can help students arrive at and be prepared to succeed at college.
We need to think about costs and whether the costs per student can be reduced through the suggested modules. If part of the responsibility for the efforts fall on the government and the online modules augment the time students spend and curb the time counselors and peers contribute per student, out-of-pocket institutional costs (at high school and college efforts) go down. It is also worth assessing if online modules provide greater levels of enrollment. In other words, we are asking a question that has not been tried in other interventions: can use of online modules outperform pre-existing efforts at an equal or lesser price and can it work effectively for a wider range of students?
I have never been enamored of the phrases: “showing up is half the battle” or “half of life is just showing up.” But, in the context of summer melt, showing up is the battle. That is a battle we need to win.
Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College and a former senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She has written and spoken frequently about strategies for enabling college and career readiness for vulnerable students across the educational pipeline.