The Hechinger Report is a non-profit news organization that focuses on education innovation and inequality.
Students were beaming at the J.P. McCaskey high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s graduation ceremony in June. The event, which was a sea of red and black robes, marked the end of an era marred by financial insecurity, loneliness, and stress.
Alejandra Zavala was a McCaskey college counselor and career counselor. It was an opportunity to see the outcomes of all the hours spent talking with students and reviewing their college applications. She also knew that 43 percent of the students in her area who had intended to attend college last year didn’t enroll by September. This was an increase of 26 percent from before the pandemic.
This phenomenon is known as “summer melt” by education experts. Students leave high school with the best intentions and even commit to attending college. But then, life happens. Families, jobs, fear, and family all interfere. The problem is likely to have gotten worse since the outbreak of the pandemic. A tight job market could also make it difficult for students to leave higher education.
It is difficult to find exact statistics about how many students say that they will go to college, and then change their mind. However, Ben Castleman, an associate professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, who studies summer melt, believes that it is between 20-30 percent to 30% of students with college plans depending on where they are located.
Castleman stated that there will be a significant share of students who this summer want to go to college. They see it as their next step after high school, and find it difficult to do so without additional support.
After high school graduation, students don’t often have the same professional support as they had during the school year. However, Lancaster’s school district offers college counseling through the summer to help students stay on track for college. District uses predictive analytics to identify students most at risk and gives them special attention.
Zavala stated, “When I was away in the summer, I would return to a lot of emails from students.” “Now that we are there, we can definitely see the effect.”
Just after graduating, she started her summer job helping to navigate the financial aid process for the 100 graduates she was responsible.
Lancaster’s school district is home to approximately 60 percent Hispanic students and 16 percent Black students. According to New American Economy, a bipartisan research group, the city is also known as one of the country’s “refugee cities”. close to 5,000 resettlers arrived in the city between 2002 and 2019. The school district is home to more than 30 languages. Zavala, a Mexican-American girl who arrived in Lancaster County at the age of 8, was born in Mexico.
Summer melt is more common for students from racial or ethnic minorities, as well those who come from low-income households, than for other students. This means that they might need more help.
Zavala stated that “summer melt is most severe for low-income students and the first generation.” Their families are not familiar with the process, especially first-generation students. They don’t realize that there is more to do once they are accepted.
Lancaster students saw their enrollment at four-year colleges remain stable despite the pandemic. This was contrary to national trends. However, enrollment at two-year college dropped by almost half, according to Jeremy Raff (coordinator for college and career services at Lancaster school district), suggesting that students considering community college are reconsidering their plans.
The return to in-person instruction at community colleges was slower than that of their university counterparts. The phenomenon was likely influenced by financial insecurity during the pandemic. Families struggled to pay college tuition. Low-income students will soon be able to take advantage of the new factor: high-paying jobs.
Castleman stated that it is possible for students to say, “I have a number of decently paid job opportunities and I want to go to college at one point but in the short-term maybe I will work while wages are high.”
Ibrahim Ntege graduated from McCaskey this spring. He was employed in a warehouse assembling cables and battery wires full-time, while also enjoying soccer, which is his favorite hobby. He is the son of central African immigrants, who was admitted to many colleges including Temple and Pennsylvania State universities. He plans to attend Millersville University in Lancaster, a public college.
Ntege stated that some of his friends have other plans. Ntege said that they want to go to college but have chosen to work now to save money.
He said that the jobs he was working this summer were not the kind of jobs he wanted to stay in for the rest of his life. “I will go to college to get that degree and make more money. I won’t have that 9-to-5 job that kills my body.
Research shows that while many high school graduates believe they will eventually attend college, it is unlikely. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 3 percent of graduating seniors chose to not go to college right away.
Lancaster counselors are available to assist students in drafting their plans. Zavala stated that those who are most in need of help may not be as proactive in seeking it.
Sometimes students return to school. Three students contacted Zavala in July to ask for her assistance applying to college after they had graduated.
She said that “now that [colleges] have gone back to in-person,” they feel more comfortable giving it another chance and returning. They’ve worked for a while, but they don’t like their job. They want to change careers and aren’t happy with the current position.
Zavala assists her college-bound students to understand their financial aid, and what they can expect to pay. To calculate their debt after graduation and possible student loan payments, she uses a spreadsheet to analyze tuition, grants, and scholarships. She encourages students to consider their career options and what they expect to make after they complete their degree.
She asks them, “If you didn’t go to school but were left with this loan, would it be possible to repay it?” I’ve seen students who started school and had to borrow a lot of money their first year. They didn’t know how to pay it back the next year so they dropped out.
Students face many obstacles, not just financial ones. Communication with colleges about housing, classes, and orientation is essential to being ready for the fall. Even seemingly small things like getting to campus are important. A student might not be able to find transportation if that is their last reason to stay home.
Even if they do manage to make it, students might struggle to adjust to a new environment. They may drop out within the first two weeks.
Some universities offer extra assistance to students in understanding college life. Ruvieliz Acevedo Guzman, a McCaskey graduate, plans to enroll at West Chester University this fall. First, she had to complete a five-week residential summer session called the Academic Success Program. This program helps students get to know the school and its processes.
“I was worried that I would not adjust quickly, but I found new friends in my first week. I met a lot of staff members here. I learned about the classes that I will be taking in the fall. Acevedo Guzman stated that she is learning about housing. “I was afraid about college because I have never been on my own. But this program has really helped me.”
Christopher Lucier, former enrollment manager at University of Vermont and University of Delaware, stated that colleges and universities should try to avoid summer melt. This is especially important considering that enrollment has dropped by almost 10% during the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
Lucier stated that “More institutions are beginning to see the importance of it when they consider what they’ve lost as a result of net tuition revenue and enrollment, diversity, etc.”
No matter what their plans are, every student needs quality advice to help them make sense of them. This is especially true for students who plan to attend college, regardless of whether they have any previous experience.
Owen stated that “Summer Melt is nothing more than data telling you that there are huge barriers for so many students.” “We are losing students in the pipeline and need to engage back into an system that was never intended for them to succeed.”
Ntege believes that just by having people pay more attention to the problem, it makes a big difference.
“I was pushed by a lot of people. He said that he believes students will be better off if they have the same support, regardless of whether or not they decide to go to college. “I don’t think I would do that myself.”