Push to keep incoming college students on track

ST. LOUIS — The excitement of acceptance into that dream college has passed. The first day of classes is still weeks away. But the resources provided by high school teachers and computer labs are no longer available for graduates.

Education researchers and academic counselors call it “summer melt,” the precarious time when some college-bound students fall through the cracks, at risk of abandoning their higher education plans entirely. Studies show that first-generation college students and those from low-income families are particularly vulnerable.

In St. Louis, a drop-in counseling center helps such students negotiate financial aid agreements, housing contracts and the other many details of college enrollment. School districts in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Minnesota and West Virginia are among those using text messages to keep aspiring college students on track.

“You get the acceptance letter and start the celebration,” said Shauna Cunningham, a high school guidance counselor who’s spent the past two summers at the St. Louis Graduates High School to College Center. “They don’t realize all the other steps.”

Recent studies by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that an estimated 20 percent of graduating seniors from school districts in places such as greater Boston, suburban Atlanta, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, abandon their plans to attend college over the summer.

Among prospective community college students, the summer melt rate increases to about 40 percent, said former Harvard researcher Ben Castleman, now an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

A lack of financial aid is to blame in about half of those cases, Castleman said. But students also wind up getting derailed by much less significant hurdles, from failing to meet course enrollment deadlines to registering for summer orientation programs.

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