I always assumed the most challenging part of getting to college was the application process. The pressure for high SAT scores, stellar GPAs, and a robust list of extracurriculars make the process strenuous for students – especially those with limited resources.
And it is. But many high school educators call this process easy compared to surviving the summer melt, a phenomenon where college-accepted high school seniors decide not to attend their chosen universities during the summer months before freshman year.
This isn’t a small problem. A Harvard study estimates 10 to 40 percent of students melt away from their college goals. Many of those are from low-income and minority backgrounds. A rough estimate suggests that hundreds of thousands of students aren’t showing up to the colleges they’d been set on attending.
The reasons for dropping college ambitions include challenging paperwork like the FAFSA, or financial aid packages that don’t meet the family’s needs. Parents of first generation college students may not be able to help their children to complete complicated tax documents.
I was overwhelmed to learn of the number of students affected by summer melt, but also at the inexactness of the data. With such a college-focused culture in U.S. education, shouldn’t this summer melt data be precise and abundant? Not so. The research is limited and many schools I talked with don’t have the resources to track their students. After graduation, students are no longer under the district’s watchful eye and have no incentive to communicate their academic or career status to anyone.
But that hasn’t stopped some schools from trying to track this data. Districts like New York City host training for counselors to make them aware of summer melt. Some schools utilize alumni to support students through the summer and into their college years. These networks can then be utilized for internship and job networking.
The most moving thing I heard from teachers was how much time they personally invest in combatting summer melt. These efforts take place during the months leading up to graduation as well as during summer break. Halley Curtis, an English teacher at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan, said she sits with students as they make phone calls to the IRS to sort out the confusing documentation required for financial aid forms. She texts, emails, and calls students to check on how the paperwork is going. Sometimes she’ll visit a student’s house if they need help with forms. This summer, she had plans to take a student on a community college visit.
Still, this sacrifice of personal time by teachers isn’t a fair solution. More research on and attention to summer melt is required to extend career and college readiness goals beyond high school graduation day.
— Kate Stringer
Kate Stringer is a Reporter-Producer for The 74. She recently wrote “‘Summer Melt’: Why Are Hundreds of Thousands of Freshmen Dropping Out of College Before Day One?“
On a recent episode of the EdNext podcast, Martin West interviews Ben Castleman of the University of Virginia, who has studied the causes of summer melt and is testing some innovative interventions to help get at-risk students to college.