This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
When J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, held its graduation ceremony in June, students were all smiles. A sea of black and red robes, the event was the finale of an adolescence marred for many by the pandemic and its attendant solitude, financial insecurity and stress.
For Alejandra Zavala, a college and career counselor at McCaskey, it was a chance to see the results of the hours she’d spent meeting with students and going over the details of their college applications. But she also knew that in the surrounding city, 43 percent of students who intended to go to college last year never enrolled come September. That was up from 26 percent before the pandemic.
It’s a phenomenon education experts call “summer melt.” Students graduate with the best of intentions to go to college, even committing to a school, but then life happens: jobs, family, and fear all get in the way. And the problem has likely gotten worse since the start of the pandemic; a tight job market also could lure additional students away from higher ed.
Exact statistics are hard to come by about how many students say they’ll go to college and then change their minds. But Ben Castleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia who studies summer melt, estimates it’s about 20 to 30 percent of students with college plans, depending on the district.
“There will be some meaningful share of students this summer who want to go to college, who see that as their post-high school plan, who find that difficult to follow through on without additional support,” Castleman said.
Students after they graduate from high school typically don’t have access to the professional support they might during the year, but since 2017 Lancaster’s school district has continued college counseling into the summer, helping students keep track of all the things they need to do in order to stay on track for college. The district uses predictive analytics to figure out which students are most at risk of melting away and give them particular attention.
“When I was off in the summer I would come back to a ton of emails from students,” Zavala said. “Now that we’re there, we definitely see the impact.”
In June, just after graduation, she began her summer work helping navigate the financial aid process with the 100 graduates for whom she is responsible.
The school district of Lancaster is about 60 percent Hispanic and 16 percent Black. The city has also gained the distinction of being one of the nation’s “refugee capitals,” with nearly 5,000 resettlers having arrived between 2002 and 2019, according to the bipartisan research organization New American Economy. More than 30 languages are spoken in the school district. Zavala herself arrived in Lancaster County from Mexico when she was 8.
Students from racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those from low-income families, are more likely to experience summer melt than other students. That means they may need more assistance.
“Our low-income and first generation students are definitely the ones that are affected by [summer melt] the most,” said Zavala. “Especially our first-generation students, their families haven’t been through the process. They don’t know there’s more to do after they’ve been accepted.”
Over the pandemic, enrollment at four-year colleges remained stable for Lancaster students, bucking national trends. But enrollment at two-year colleges fell by nearly half, said Jeremy Raff, coordinator for college and career services at the school district, suggesting that students who would otherwise pursue community college were rethinking their plans.
Community colleges were slower than their university counterparts to return to in-person instruction. Financial insecurity over the course of the pandemic also likely played a role in the phenomenon, as families grappled with their ability to pay for college. This summer a new factor is likely to be on the table for low-income students: the lure of high-paying jobs.
“It’s possible that students are saying, ‘I’ve got a variety of decently paying job opportunities and I do want to go to college at some point but at least in the near-term maybe I’ll work while wages are high,” Castleman said.
Ibrahim Ntege, who graduated from McCaskey in the spring, was working in a warehouse this summer assembling battery wires and cables full-time while also focusing on soccer, his favorite hobby. The son of 2018 immigrants from central Africa, he was accepted to several colleges, including Pennsylvania State and Temple universities, and plans to attend Millersville University, a public college just outside Lancaster.
Some of his friends, Ntege said, have different plans. They want to go to college, but have decided to work for now to save up money — something he said wouldn’t sway him.
“These jobs that we’re working over the summer aren’t the type of jobs that we want to keep for the rest of our lives,” he said. “I’ll go to college and earn that degree and start making more money and won’t have to work that 9-to-5 job and kill my body.”
Though many high school graduates say they’ll eventually go to college after taking time off to work, research shows that it’s unlikely they ever will. In 2018, of the graduating seniors who chose not to go to college immediately, only about 3 percent enrolled the next year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Counselors in Lancaster try to help all students sketch out their plans, even if they’re not looking at higher education, but inevitably some don’t respond. Those who need help the most may be the least proactive in seeking it, Zavala said.
Sometimes students come back. In July, Zavala was contacted by three students who had previously graduated, some as far back as 2019, and wanted her help applying to college after having been in the workforce.
“Now that the [colleges] are going back to in-person, they feel more comfortable giving it a try and going back,” she said. “They’ve been working for a while and they’re not happy in that job and don’t see themselves there long-term and want to explore a career.”
Zavala helps her college-bound students understand their financial aid and how much they’re expected to pay. She uses a spreadsheet that analyzes tuition, grants and scholarships to determine their likely debt at graduation and potential student loan payments. She asks students to think about career plans and how much money they’re likely to earn after they achieve their degree.
“If you were to not go to school and you were stuck with this loan, would you be able to pay it back?” she asks them. “I’ve had students that have started school where they had to take out a pretty significant amount of loans their first year and they didn’t know how they were going to make that next year, so they ended up dropping out and getting stuck with loans.”
Financial barriers aren’t the only ones that stand in the way for students. Communicating with a college about housing, classes and orientation is an essential part of being ready to start in the fall, as are seemingly little things, like simply getting to the campus. If a student can’t find transportation, that might be the final thing that convinces them not to go.
Even if students do make it, they might have trouble adjusting to a new environment and drop out in the first two weeks.
Some universities have tried to give some students extra help in understanding how college works. Ruvieliz Acevedo-Guzman is a recent McCaskey grad set to enroll in West Chester University in the fall. But first, she had to attend a five-week summer residential session called the Academic Success Program, which helps students learn about the school and its procedures.
“I thought I wouldn’t adjust too soon, but in the first week I made new friends. I got to know a lot of the staff here. I learned about my classes for the fall. I’m learning about housing,” Acevedo-Guzman said. “I was scared about college because I’ve never really been on my own, but I think this program really helped me.”
For colleges and universities, it’s in their best interest to try to prevent summer melt, said Christopher Lucier, director of partner relations at Othot, a higher ed analytics firm, and former enrollment manager at the University of Delaware and University of Vermont. That’s especially important as enrollment has declined by nearly 10 percent over the course of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
“More and more institutions are beginning to understand the priority around it when they think about what they’ve lost in terms of net tuition revenue, enrollment, diversity,” Lucier said.
Every student, no matter whether they intend to go to college or not, needs to have access to quality advising to help them sort through possible plans, preferably from someone who already knows them, said Laura Owen, executive director of the Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment at San Diego State University.
“Summer melt is nothing more than a data point telling you that we have huge barriers for so many students,” Owen said. “We are losing students from the pipeline that we need to engage back into a system that really was never designed for them to succeed.”
For Ntege, just having people pay attention to the problem makes a difference.
“I had a lot of people pushing me. I think if all the students had that kind of support they’ll be better off, whether they choose to go to college or not,” he said. “I don’t think I would do it myself.”