“Summer melt,” the surprisingly common scenario in which high-school graduates apply, are accepted, and say they plan to enroll in college—but don’t.
Summer Link, a program in the Fort Worth Independent School District, was designed to keep college-bound students on track by offering logistical and emotional support during the transitional summer season before college.
Ft. Worth’s SDP fellow Lindsay Daugherty found that one in three students targeted for support were reached by school counselors, who offered support completing financial-aid forms and gathering required transcripts. Her analysis of counselor logs and district records revealed strengths and opportunities to improve the program, as well as lessons learned for districts looking to found a similar program of their own.
Summer melt is a common problem, especially among low-income students. Many high-school graduates who have been accepted to college and say they plan to enroll are knocked off-course if they do not obtain sufficient financial aid, miss administrative deadlines, or lack support from family and friends.
It was a significant issue for graduates of the Fort Worth Independent School District, which had a districtwide summer melt rate of 48 percent in 2010. That rate was significantly higher for low-income and Latino graduates, who had melt rates of 56 percent and 59 percent, respectively. By contrast, the melt rate for white students was 19 percent.
To connect more graduates to the colleges they planned to attend, Fort Worth ISD targeted 1,422 students and offered them up to two hours of counseling over a five-week period following high-school graduation. In the pilot program in 2011, about 500 students received assistance through in-person meetings or over the phone. About one in three of them received help filling out financial-aid forms; another third got help with transcripts. One in 10 merely sought emotional support and reassurance to manage pre-college anxiety.
The district hired current guidance counselors, teachers, and other district staff as Summer Link counselors, and allowed them to choose the days and hours when they worked. It set a budget of $48 per student to cover costs, which was underfunded by about one-third. Hiring, training, and student outreach advertising the program were completed in the week before graduation. The counselors created checklists, enlisted representatives from local colleges to meet with students, and generally encouraged students to progress toward enrollment.
The district’s SDP fellow was charged with measuring the success of this intervention to determine whether it ought to be scaled up.
The counselors’ impressions of the pilot program were enthusiastic and positive. For example, one counselor wrote, “Need to keep this program funded and executed. A huge need for our kids!”
Counselors found the flexibility of their working hours was helpful in maintaining momentum and reaching students. But they would have liked more lead time for training and to find ways to communicate with more students—districts considering similar programs should communicate with counselors in the months leading up to graduation, not merely the days before. A Facebook page, for example, was not broadly used because there was not enough time to promote it to students.
Still, other resources created for participants were widely viewed as effective. Counselors created enrollment checklists for the four more popular local colleges, an information sheet on why going to college is important, and guidelines on how to contact students and use Facebook.
Budgeting was also an issue, in part because it’s hard to determine exactly how many graduates will opt in to the support services. Possible ways to improve included fixing the budget based on estimated survey response rates and enlisting a district department familiar with counseling to house the program.
And in terms of programming, Dougherty found few opportunities to connect high-school graduates with current, successful college students. Public meetings where they could share their experiences with aspiring students, especially those who would be the first in their families to go to college, could be a powerful addition to the program.
Read SDP Fellow Lindsay Daugherty's full capstone report here.