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The Summer After High School Graduation and College Success (Part I)

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Why do 10 to 40 percent of college-bound seniors--especially low-income students who have been accepted to and enrolled in college--not attend college anywhere come fall? What factors during the summer after high school graduation cause them to change or abandon their higher education aspirations?

Benjamin L. Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and Lindsay C. Page, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, examine the importance of the summer between high school and the first day of college in their new book Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College (Harvard Education Press, 2014).  

With the start of the 2014 school year already underway, we can look ahead to spring graduation and what parents and educators can do now to improve students' chances of not only being accepted to, but staying enrolled in college while managing coursework, finances, personal aspirations, and family pressures, and ultimately graduating with the knowledge and resources to begin the next chapter of their lives.  

In this first installment of a two-part interview, I caught up with Mr. Castleman and Ms. Page via e-mail to discuss the transition into college. Mr. Castleman and Ms. Page prepared their answers to the following questions together. The second installment on continued communication with graduates during that crucial summer will be posted this Friday.

Summer Melt_BookMarks_2.jpgBookMarks: What is "summer melt," and when does it start? What students are the most susceptible?

Castleman/Page: We use "summer melt" to refer to the phenomenon that college-intending high school graduates fail to matriculate anywhere in the year following high school. Despite the term summer melt, one counselor encouraged us to realize that, "summer melt starts in February" because students should be applying for college financial aid - completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid- in the winter of their senior year. Delays in FAFSA completion translate to delays in receiving financial aid packages and even receiving less generous aid than if they filed earlier. 

Beyond applying for aid, students must navigate several other college-transition tasks, such as completing academic placement tests and evaluating tuition payment plan options. These tasks can be quite challenging for students who are typically isolated from professional college advising during the summer months and whose parents often lack experience with the college-going process.

BookMarks: What are two take-aways for students to make a smooth transition to college? For high school counselors and educators?

Castleman/Page: First, many of the challenges that students face stem from earlier financial aid hurdles that they encounter. We encourage counselors and educators to support students and families to apply for financial aid as early as possible during senior year.  High schools can also help students to understand what comes after FAFSA filing - key steps like verifying their income and asset information if the Department of Education or colleges require them to do so and seeking assistance interpreting the financial aid packages they receive from colleges and universities.

Second, seemingly straightforward tasks can pose large barriers.  Particularly for students from low-income households, steps like paying a housing deposit or traveling to campus for orientation can be challenging.

Counselors and educators can support students to anticipate these challenges and proactively communicate with their college about the options that are available to them. For example, students may be able to apply an orientation fee to a tuition bill so it can be paid with financial aid, rather than having to pay out of pocket over the summer. 

BookMarks: You note that parents may rely on students to help with family responsibilities and to live at home for cultural or financial reasons, and may view a college education as a luxury rather than a necessity. What advice can you share with these parents about the benefits of college for their children? How can educators work with parents and others to encourage their children's dreams of college?

Castleman/Page: We believe that the majority of parents want what is best for their children and will sacrifice substantially to support their children's postsecondary goals.  Nevertheless, investing in education can involve putting off immediate needs, like wages their child can bring in to help pay for household expenses. To help parents support their children's college dreams, educators should identify opportunities to increase families' awareness and understanding of financial aid programs. Further, educators can help students to make sound choices about where to apply for college. Postsecondary institutions vary substantially in quality, cost, and the opportunities that they provide to students.

Educators can help students and families to engage in a robust college exploration process through which they can learn about the academic and extracurricular opportunities that schools offer, as well as the financial implications. 

The summer after high school graduation is when many students face the reality that their college plans may not be affordable without taking on large amounts of debt.  Instead, affordability should be a key part of the college search process so that students apply to postsecondary options that are financially viable.

For more on college access, read Parts One and Two of "Educators Discuss College Access of Inner-City Students" on BookMarks, "Higher Education & Poverty," the latest installment of Education Week's blog OpEducation, Education Week Commentary's War on Poverty coverage, and special online collection College Access for All, which includes an exclusive Commentary by Michelle Obama on her undergraduate experience at Princeton and her Reach Higher campaign.

Photo Credit: Harvard Education Press

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