Summer melt—Who’s at risk and why? (Part 1 of 2)

This post is part of an occasional series that addresses key factors in helping low-income and first-generation students navigate the transition from high school to college, and in helping them stay on track to graduation once they get there. This is the first of two posts about summer melt by authors and researchers Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page. 

Summer melt by the numbers: Risk affects as many as one in two low-income students

Until recently, the education community thought that high school seniors who had been accepted to college, received financial aid, and chosen where to enroll were on a sure path to college. A few might make a last-minute decision to attend a different college or university over the summer, but we collectively assumed that the vast majority of these students, who had already come so far in their college planning, would matriculate in the fall.

Surprisingly, however, one in five—and in some communities nearly one in two—low-income high school graduates who have college plans in place at graduation fail to actually matriculate in the year after high school—a phenomenon known as “summer melt.”

So, who are the students who suffer from summer melt, and why do they fall off track?

If family support is lacking, how can we step in to better support high-achieving but low-income students in achieving their college aspirations?

A system that’s built to deal with conventional financial scenarios

We’ve consistently found that low-income students who experience summer melt are not so different from their more affluent peers who successfully transition to college. They all are bright; they’ve all worked hard in high school; and they’re all looking forward to the promise and excitement of college life. However, each encounters challenges, often related to the financial aid process, between college acceptance and college matriculation.

In particular, lower-income students experience distinct disadvantages in the college-going process, many of them stemming from financial circumstances that fall outside the college applicant “norm”. As the director of college initiatives for one charter school that serves lower-income students told us, “many of our students have different from ‘typical’ household situations. Yet, the [financial aid] process is set up for students from ‘typical’ family situations.”

Shanice: One applicant’s struggle

One student’s experiences exemplify this point. Shanice attended an urban charter high school in the Northeast. Early in her high school career, she became informally estranged from her parents. Though her parents moved to a neighboring state, Shanice maintained her residency and continued to attend the same high school through the support of friends and other relatives. Shanice was a strong student and earned acceptance to the state flagship university. Yet, because she was still legally a dependent of her parents, and they lived in a different state, the university charged her the out-of-state rate for tuition, and room and board—nearly twice that for in-state residents. Shanice didn’t know how she would possibly afford to attend.

Unlike many comprehensive public high schools in the US, Shanice’s charter high school offered a robust college-advising staff. “You wouldn’t believe the hurdles to getting her counted as an in-state student,” the school’s counseling director recounted. “She had never even been out of the state!”

With the support of her counselor, Shanice worked well into the summer months to correct this misclassification and convince the university to count her as an in-state student.

Adult influence and supporting students through the summer-melt danger zone

Shanice’s story illustrates another finding from our several years of research: the paths of high-achieving students from higher and lower income groups diverge largely based on the adult support (or lack thereof) in their lives. In college-educated families, students’ roles are often limited to passing on their financial aid paperwork to their parents who then handle the rest. Students from low-income backgrounds may work tirelessly to complete their aid applications themselves, but often run into challenges they don’t know how to surmount on their own. First-generation students and their parents (a substantial subset of low-income students) are sometimes not even aware of the financial aid process at all.

Based on these insights, a clear question faces those of us interested in promoting higher success rates among low-income and first generation students: If family support is lacking, how can we step in to better support high-achieving but low-income students in achieving their college aspirations?

In a follow up post we’ll answer this question, looking at six tactics (all low-cost and highly effective) that high school leaders, school counselors, parent-teacher associations and others can use to help ensure college-bound students actually make it to campus in the fall.

This post is adapted from Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College (Harvard Education Press; October 2014) by Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page.

Ben Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Lindsay Page is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Together they have done extensive research into summer melt among low-income students and into strategies for addressing it.