‘Summer Melt’: Why Are Hundreds of Thousands of Freshmen Dropping Out of College Before Day One?
It is not uncommon for high school educators to liken the college admissions process to a race, with hurdles, baton passes, and a final stretch. However, gaining acceptance into a college does not mark the end of the journey for students. In fact, the most difficult part of the process often comes after the initial excitement, where many students struggle.
During the four months between accepting college admission and beginning their first semester on campus, these teenagers are faced with a complex set of tasks that they must complete in order to enroll as college freshmen. This includes filling out complicated paperwork and dealing with financial matters. Many students are confronted for the first time with the realization of the high cost of obtaining a degree.
Complicating matters further, this period usually falls during summer vacation, when the teachers and guidance counselors who supported them throughout the college admissions process are no longer available. Students find themselves facing significant changes without the support network they relied on in high school.
According to a Harvard University study, this overwhelming process causes 10 to 40 percent of students to give up and reconsider their decision to attend college. This phenomenon, known as "summer melt," is most prevalent among students who plan to attend community college, with a majority coming from low-income families.
It is not that these students lack the desire to pursue higher education. Rather, the preparation required is simply overwhelming. The paperwork, especially the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), can be monumental. It demands tax and financial information that many students have never dealt with before. First-generation college attendees lack the guidance of experienced parents. Some students come from undocumented families and lack the necessary tax forms. Others realize the distinctions between loans, grants, and scholarships only when faced with a bill over the summer. Some students have full-time jobs that leave them with limited time to handle tasks such as setting up email accounts, arranging dorm assignments, selecting meal plans, and registering for classes.
Joel Snyder, a social studies teacher at Green Dot Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School in Los Angeles, highlights the gap in institutional support between high school and college. Even the most dedicated guidance counselors cannot track each student’s progress once they enter college.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 2 million students typically enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school each year. This means that hundreds of thousands of students are likely to encounter difficulties over the summer. The problem is expected to worsen in the coming decade, with the NCES projecting a 14 percent increase in college enrollment.
The Harvard study emphasizes the importance of institutional interventions in alleviating the summer melt phenomenon and increasing college enrollment rates. In response, Snyder and other California Green Dot charter schools have developed intervention plans to address the melt rate, which stands at approximately 20 percent. One intervention is a launch-to-college event that brings together alumni, college representatives, and financial aid officers in April to support the transition from high school to college. Snyder is also organizing three alumni events throughout the school year to reconnect high school graduates with internship opportunities.
At KIPP Houston, where the summer melt rate is currently between 5 and 10 percent, a team of alumni assists recent graduates from their charter high schools. These team members regularly communicate with their advisees via texts, calls, and emails to ensure they submit necessary forms and address any questions. The team also organizes summer bridge activities to guide advisers and students through health forms, financial aid awards, and other paperwork.
Bryan Contreras, KIPP Through College Director, shared an example of a student who unexpectedly changed their college choice due to concerns over tuition affordability. This decision was made without consulting an adviser, resulting in a last-minute decision that added $65,000 in expenses. Contreras encouraged the student to meet with the team to jointly explore the best financial package.
Contreras states, "We see this as a baton race. This is the final leg. Students are fearful of change, so we hope to coach them through that."
In the role of supporting students, alumni often serve as the main contact points. However, teachers also take on this responsibility at times. Halley Curtis, an English teacher at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan, fulfills this role by advising a group of six seniors in her homeroom throughout the school year. Curtis goes to great lengths to assist her students, such as sitting with them on speakerphone while dealing with tax-related matters for FAFSA. She has accompanied students on tours of college campuses, visited their homes to provide assistance with paperwork, and even sent them text messages as reminders for important deadlines.
Curtis admits that she sometimes wishes she had pursued a degree in accounting alongside her master’s in education, albeit jokingly.
All six of Curtis’s advisees have applied to college, with four of them being accepted and planning to attend in the upcoming fall. The remaining two encountered difficulties with the FAFSA forms, but Curtis is still assisting them in aiming for a January start date.
Despite witnessing the hard work put in by her fellow teachers and school counselors, Curtis feels frustrated, believing that their efforts are not sufficient.
"I don’t think it’s enough for teachers to simply be advocates, because it places a heavy burden on them, and I don’t believe teachers can sustain this kind of role in the long run," she remarked.
Teachers constantly worry that, no matter how much support and guidance they provide, it may not be adequate for their students to successfully transition to the next stage.
Snyder, another faculty member, expressed apprehension whenever a former student visited and revealed that they had not pursued higher education.
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