College dreams for Atlanta students upended by pandemic uncertainty

Kamore Campbell is McNair High School’s 2020 salutatorian and is attending American University in the fall. JENNI GIRTMAN/ FOR THE AJC

Kamore Campbell is McNair High School’s 2020 salutatorian and is attending American University in the fall. JENNI GIRTMAN/ FOR THE AJC

The months just after high school graduation have long posed a problem for some teens who plan to start college in the fall.

It’s during this precarious season that money woes, family emergencies and other obstacles pop up to prevent between 10% to 20% of recent graduates who had planned to go to college from actually enrolling.

School counselors even have a name for it: Summer melt.

Throw in a global pandemic and some fear a trickle could become a flood.

"Kids are going to have real issues to contend with and navigate," said Taylor Ramsey, executive director of OneGoal Metro Atlanta, a nonprofit working to improve college access. "There is a risk that a wide swath of kids get knocked off their college track. And it gets infinitely harder to get back on."

Some experts are predicting big drops in college enrollment this fall. It’s unknown how and when many college campuses will reopen. Parents have lost jobs. Families are stressed about getting sick.

Lower-income students and those who are the first in their family to seek a postsecondary degree are particularly vulnerable to having their plans wash away. In metro Atlanta high schools closed in mid-March, forcing seniors to tackle college paperwork on their own or via text and phone with counselors.

Across Atlanta, as college hopefuls wrestle with new challenges brought on by the coronavirus and economic downturn, advisers are intensifying efforts to guide them through the uncertainty.

OneGoal works with about 320 Atlanta and DeKalb County high schoolers, recent graduates and first-year college students. During their junior and senior years of high school, students take a for-credit class that helps them explore postsecondary options, apply to college and decide where to enroll.

When school buildings abruptly closed in March, seniors were working on financial aid applications and starting to receive acceptance letters. Some were still applying to colleges.

Teachers scrambled to stay connected with students online, but sometimes only a couple of students showed up to virtual classes, Ramsey said.

Knyia Mitchell, 18, graduated from Therrell High School in Atlanta as part of the class of 2020 and plans to enroll in college this fall. Submitted photo.

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Knyia Mitchell, 18, who just graduated from Therrell High School in Atlanta, stayed in touch with the OneGoal team and leaned on them for help. But some classmates have veered off track. Tuition became a bigger issue once students weren’t meeting in-person with the experts who had been helping with scholarships and financial aid applications.

“A lot of plans have changed. I think a lot of them have really lost hope. It’s really sad. Some of them aren’t even going to college anymore; some already just changed to closer to home,” said Mitchell.

She’s spent the last few weeks trying to decide where to go to college this fall and dealing with disappointments from a disrupted senior year. She thought she’d be shopping the weekly sales to outfit her dorm room, but instead stores closed amid the pandemic.

“I actually want to be on campus. I don’t want to be doing online school my freshman year,” she said.

In the coming months, Ramsey expects one-on-one advising to be intensive, though not in person.

“When I’ve asked students, ‘What would you do if school didn’t open in the fall?’ the answer is: ‘I have no idea,’” she said. “Our students have not given up on those dreams, and we can’t either. And they are going to need more support than ever before.”

Many counselors are still urging students to enroll in college, though they acknowledge there are situations where that won’t be possible. Those who go straight to college — what advisers call “seamless enrollment” — are more likely to complete their degree.

"For our students, we are worried if they don't go, if they don't get started, they actually never will go," said Tina Fernandez, executive director of Achieve Atlanta.

The organization provides need-based scholarships to Atlanta Public Schools graduates and financially supports advising services, including the OneGoal program, at Atlanta high schools.

In APS, 58% of last year's graduating class enrolled in college as of October. Many attend in-state public schools.

Korynn Schooley, Achieve Atlanta’s vice president of college access, said college advisers already had a texting program in place to communicate with parents of this year’s senior class. That made it easier to stay in touch during coronavirus closures. She anticipates a greater need for summertime advising and personal communication.

“Students’ decisions may change over the summer more so than they usually do,” she said.

For the second year, APS counselors will assist recent graduates through a program meant to deter summer melt. Eight counselors at eight high schools will participate.

They’ll offer virtual group sessions and reach out individually to those who aren’t sure what to do after graduation, said Maria Grovner, APS school counseling coordinator. Some colleges have relaxed their admissions requirements by waiving college-entrance exams, which could present new opportunities for students.

While experts advise against taking aimless time off, a structured gap-year program is a good fit for some, said Amber Scott. She's the founder and executive director of Leap Year, a small Atlanta-based nonprofit that offers a one-year fellowship for recent high school graduates. Participants are paid $550 a month to work as elementary school reading coaches. They also take a class at Georgia State University's Perimeter College and join college-prep workshops.

Scott said she’s worried about the high school class of 2020 because they lost months of in-school instruction and now are trying to transition to college or the workplace during a pandemic. She’s planning to expand the program from about five fellows to a dozen in the upcoming year.

Sam Aleinikoff, who started the nonprofit College AIM in 2013 to support primarily DeKalb County students, is advising most high school graduates to enroll in a technical school or two- or four-year college or join a strategic gap year program such as Leap Year.

His organization is working with nearly 200 graduates to firm up their plans. He said students need guidance to make fully informed college decisions, and his team is talking to students more frequently. College AIM is planning a virtual college transition program that touches on mental health, preparing for freshman English class and other topics.

Many students are concerned because they don’t know what will happen next, but they’re also a bit naive and optimistic despite the pandemic.

“I think they will become more and more stressed as the summer goes on,” he said.

Kamore Campbell is McNair High School's 2020 salutatorian and is attending American University in the fall.  Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

McNair High School salutatorian Kamore Campbell kept Aleinikoff up-to-date as her acceptance letters began to roll in this spring and reached out again when she had a mishap amid the pandemic.

She missed an important email about verifying her financial aid information when her Internet access was cut off for a few days. By the time she received a letter in the mail alerting her to the issue, her deadline to respond was imminent. College AIM stepped in to help. Campbell plans to attend American University this fall.

“I definitely did not do it all on my own,” she said.