For high schools, getting students to graduation day is no longer the finish line.
Counselors and education nonprofits increasingly are stepping in to help students navigate the tricky months in between earning their diplomas and heading to college.
Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the nation’s high school graduates who intend to go to college don’t make it to campus. Summertime obstacles — tuition struggles and seemingly endless checklists and deadlines — derail their plans.
Low-income students and those who would be the first in their families to go to college are particularly vulnerable to the problem, which researchers have dubbed “summer melt.”
“A lot of stuff happens over the summer,” said Andrew Ragland, an Atlanta Public Schools professional school counselor.
Incoming college freshman must complete numerous tasks in the months before classes start, and many of the deadlines they have to meet and forms they have to fill out are due during the summer when they no longer have access to high school counselors.
Sometimes, their parents don’t know how to help them figure out complicated financial aid paperwork, or they’re surprised by a higher-than-expected tuition bill or have a family crisis.
In metro Atlanta, schools and student advocates have responded by offering summertime support ranging from text-message reminders to one-on-one counseling. One organization even distributed dorm-room supplies.
APS launched a program this year funded with a $90,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The district placed seven counselors at six high schools over the summer. The counselors contacted recent graduates who hadn’t finished financial aid forms or who didn’t have a solid plan for the fall. They reached out to graduates with more concrete plans to make sure their paperwork was in order.
The counselors also kept regular office hours for in-person chats.
“We do a good job of getting students… applied and accepted, but then come fall time there may be barriers to prevent them from actually following through with wherever they got accepted,” said Maria Grovner, the district’s school counseling coordinator.
Two of the students Ragland worked with this summer said without his help they might not be going to college.
Academics and athletics kept Quarrio White so busy at Mays High School that he didn’t focus on college. Once summer rolled around, he asked for help.
“It was my mistake because I waited until the last minute,” said White, 18.
Ragland helped the young man with financial aid and even drove him to Atlanta Metropolitan State College, where White plans to attend this fall.
Without that push, White said he “would really be panicking.”
Mays classmate Raven Mattison was always interested in going to college, but the 18-year-old feared her college dream might be fading away.
“All of my friends, they were so like set, ready for college, and I just realized: ‘Oh, my God.’ I was embarrassed to even tell them I haven’t even applied. I felt like a lot of people didn’t know. They just thought that I had my stuff together,” she said.
She got in touch with Ragland this summer, who guided her through key steps.
Grovner estimates each APS counselor met with 20 to 30 graduates weekly. She wants to continue the program next summer.
The Atlanta district isn’t alone in trying to keep its new graduates on track.
For several years, DeKalb County School District has opened “summer transition centers” for recent graduates looking for college or career guidance. About 245 students received help in June at 10 high schools.
Thousands of text messages
New Atlanta alumni also got support from the nonprofit organization OneGoal-Metro Atlanta, which trains teachers to work with students who have an average grade-point average of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale. Beginning in the junior year of high school, teachers help students identify and apply to colleges that match their interest and academic performance.
The OneGoal team stayed in touch with recent graduates over the summer. They can help students obtain immunization records, decipher complex financial aid packages and arrange rides to college campuses. They provided students with hangers for dorm closets and sheets for their beds, said the organization’s metro Atlanta executive director Brooke Flowers.
For four years, the College Advising Corps, a nonprofit organization that places college advisers in Atlanta high schools, has used an automated text-messaging service to contact recent graduates after commencement.
The texts remind students about big college deadlines and nudge them to pay tuition bills and submit final transcripts.
Last summer, advisers sent more than 42,000 texts to a couple thousand members of the high school class of 2018. Advisers received more than 12,000 responses and messages in return.
Many students still are deciding where to go to college or change their minds over the summer, said Korynn Schooley, vice president of College Access for Achieve Atlanta, which provides need-based scholarships to APS graduates and financially supports the College Advising Corps.
Schooley said the text program reaches students with timely information through a communication mode they use. Achieve Atlanta plans to start tracking summer melt rates so it can see if the efforts are making a difference.
Text-message reminders and other simple interventions that don’t require lots of time and money can reduce summer melt by about 20 percent, said Lindsay Page, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.
She pointed to Georgia State University’s texting platform that relies on artificial intelligence to target incoming freshmen who need help overcoming common admissions hurdles. Georgia State reports that over three years, its effort has helped enroll more than 1,000 students who would have otherwise “melted away.”
Mattison, the college-bound Mays High School graduate, said she feels “grateful and blessed” to have gotten the summertime help she needed.
“I didn’t want to disappoint my family because they really wanted me to go to school,” she said.