Why Poor Students' College Plans 'Melt' Over The Summer

A large number of poor high school students, who say they are continuing on to college, fail to show up in the fall. The reason is referred to as the "summer melt." Students face many hurdles over the summer including lack of resources and mentors.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And as colleges do look towards the fall, there's a persistent fear that higher education is predominately serving upper and middle-class kids. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam recently told us that colleges are trying hard to get more low-income students to apply, but it doesn't always work. We turn to Shankar again this morning for more information about why that is.

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So where does this story go from there?

VEDANTAM: You know, David, there's an issue with what I would call the last mile. You know, if you're a utility company and you're supplying water to people's homes, it's not enough to build a massive dam. You actually need to build pipes to get the water into individual homes.

GREENE: Sure.

VEDANTAM: It turns out that with higher education, we're failing to bridge a very important last mile. There's this whole group of low-income students who make it to college, they get in, they get financial aid, they're clearly success stories, but the pipe's leaky. And something happens in the last mile, the summer right before they go to college, and they don't show up in college in the fall.

GREENE: Something is going wrong in this last mile, the final weeks and months before you actually would go to college.

VEDANTAM: Yes. I spoke with Lindsay Page. She's a researcher at Harvard University. And along with Ben Castleman, who is also at Harvard, they're looking into this phenomenon that they're calling summer melt. Here's what Page told me their researchers found.

DR. LINDSEY PAGE: The summer was a particularly tumultuous time for kids from low income backgrounds. Upwards of 20 percent of kids who at the time of high school graduation say that they're continuing onto college, about 20 percent of those kids don't actually show up in the fall.

GREENE: So the melt that we're talking about here, one in five kids they're saying who get into college in the spring actually decide for some reason not to go.

VEDANTAM: Yes. So that's one in five on average. Page and Castleman are using data from a national survey as well as a smaller study that is focusing on Boston. They're finding a number of things. So the rate of summer melt varies a lot among kids; it's more likely among students who have weaker grades, more likely among low-income students, and it's most likely among students who are going to community colleges rather than to elite schools. In fact, for those kids, the rate of summer melt is even higher.

Here's what Page told me.

PAGE: For kids who are intending to enroll in community colleges, the rates of what we're calling summer melt are particularly high. So a few moments ago, I quoted a rate of about 20 percent overall. When we look specifically at kids who indicate intentions to enroll in a community college, the rate of summer melt is more like 40 percent.

GREENE: So low-income students - students going to community college - these are the kids who are not taking that final step. Why not?

VEDANTAM: Page and Castleman think it's probably a variety of factors. These kids often may not have role models, they may not have resources. Some of them may be the first in their families to be going to college. Many of these kids don't have peers who are going to college, and it's tough to be making plans to leave home when your girlfriend or your boyfriend is staying back home.

GREENE: Are all staying behind.

VEDANTAM: Right. And there are a lot of things that students who are heading to college me to do over the summer - they need to finish paperwork, they need to handle financial aid, and students from low-income families seem to have a harder time navigating those challenges.

GREENE: OK. Some of those problems seem hard to actually confront. But if you need help with filling out forms and financial aid, I mean, isn't that something that we can actually help some of these kids with?

VEDANTAM: Yes. So Page and Castleman are looking at this and the theory they're playing with is that in the summer after high school graduation that there's this giant gap. So high schools often don't see kids as being their responsibility and the colleges don't see these kids as being their responsibility as yet. Now in fairness, both these institutions are trying to bridge the gap, and at Fulton County, Georgia researchers actually ran an experiment one summer. High school counselors typically work, you know, a nine or 10 months schedule. These schools brought the counselors back over the summer to reach out to the students who are heading to college. And what they found was that the kids from low-income families took up his offer in droves and not only that, it drove down the rate of summer melt by 8 percentage points. So instead of a 40 percent summer melt rate, you might be talking about a close to 30 percent summer melt rate, and that's huge.

GREENE: OK. This sounds like a good idea, this providing guidance counselors over the summer, but for high schools, I mean, that cost money.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I think no question it is going to cost money, David. Ben Castleman pointed out something interesting to me. He said, you know, in the 12 years of public schooling these kids have been given, taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting them ready to go to college. You know, taxpayers are going to have to make a decision whether it's worth spending a couple of hundred dollars to bridge that last mile.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam, thanks for being here.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. You can find him on Twitter @Hidden Brain and you can find this program on Twitter @nprgreene and @MORNING EDITION.

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GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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