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How to Avoid 'Summer Melt' and Support Low-Income Students Before College

It's referred to as “summer melt,” as these eligible students, most of whom are low-income minority students, “melt” away, often due to challenges they weren’t expecting.
Students walk past the Old Main building on the Penn State campus in State College, Pennsylvania.Matt Rourke / AP file

Students who do not have a lot of support or information on the transition to college may find the summer after high school extremely difficult to navigate, as there are many important steps that need to be taken.

According to research by Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, co-authors of "Summer Melt," as many as one in five high school graduates who have been accepted and intend to enroll in college don’t arrive on campus in the fall. This is referred to as “summer melt” as these eligible students, most of whom are low-income minority students, “melt” away, often due to challenges they weren’t expecting.

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“The summer before college is the epitome of a broader pattern on the road to college, of students encountering consequential but complex decisions,” says Castleman, an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. “This time can set students up for success, or a lack of resources can greatly impact their ability to get where they want to go.”

The following tips will help students (and their parents) navigate the summer months:

Remember: All students are college material

Too often, students get in their heads that college is not for them. This feeling can especially arise at times where there are many tasks to complete and hurdles to jump over. Parents and other caring adults in every student’s life need to make sure students feel confident that they are college material. David Johns, the former Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, says, “We need to disrupt the idea that some kids just aren’t college material. This can isolate them and further disenfranchise them from opportunities automatically afforded to some students.”

This does not mean every student will go to college or has to go to college, but if the student wants to, they can make it happen. This also does not mean that college is only defined as a four-year university. Starting with the mindset that college is possible will help your student have the confidence to overcome barriers they may face heading into their first year at college.

Contact a school counselor over the summer

School counselors are there to help when challenges arise. Before graduation, students should ask counselors what resources are available to them in the summer. There are also text-advising services offered by uAspire, a nonprofit organization working to equip young people with financial resources and information necessary to get to college. This service helps remind students of important steps and deadlines. According to Summer Melt, a study on the text message campaign by uAspire consistently found positive impacts among students who lacked access to college-going support and information. Holly Morrow, Vice President of Knowledge at uAspire, says simple reminders can go a long way in helping a student get to their first day of college. “A quick piece of support can have a huge positive success,” Morrow says. “Texting also invites an immediate response and allows the students to be very honest. And for students who are shy or busy or just overwhelmed, this is a great way to ask questions.”

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Talk to mentors

If a student has a mentor, they should talk to them about this transition. Often, mentors can be a great source of knowledge and help for students at this time. Even if a student doesn’t use the term “mentor” to describe a caring person in their life, it’s likely they have someone who is rooting for them and willing to offer support. This could come from a teacher, coach, older friend or sibling, or other family members. David Johns said when his mentee graduated from high school, he relied on Johns a lot. “Twenty-four hours before the pre-enrollment session for his community college, he called and asked for a ride. Then, he had submitted an application for housing, but not a housing deposit,” Johns says. “Little things like this come up and some students don’t have the resources to handle them.” Having someone for students to talk to and give them advice during this time can be what inevitably makes them successful in navigating this transition. Organizations like MENTOR can help students connect with the right mentor for them.

Visit the college website

If a student has not already taken the time to really explore their college’s website, the summer before is the time to do so. College websites have a wealth of resources about student life, financing tuition, academics, student organizations, the campus, and much more. Students can also sometimes check their financial aid status here and other important deadlines. This will be a great place to explore what the college offers before actually starting classes. “Finding out a little more about life at their school and what’s happening on campus can help students know what to expect and better prepare,” Morrow says. Most colleges now have personal accounts for each student to navigate the site and their own student portals. The login and username will often come in the acceptance packet or an email from the college.

Check the status of financial aid

If students have applied for financial aid, they should have received an award letter with more information. Students should make sure to check their personalized website and see if there are any additional steps they need to take. Also, they need to check with their college to see if there is anything else they need for financing their education. If students are considering a financial aid appeal, or negotiating a better aid package, they should contact their financial aid office to ask how to appeal.

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