Monday, February 6, 2012

Plugging a Leak in the College Pipeline


Every year, a phenomenon known as the “summer melt” washes away the higher education plans of thousands of would-be college students. It’s a tragic scenario in a competitive economy where a college degree matters more than ever. Research from Chicago schools suggests that the college plans of as many as 1 in 5 students who’ve already been accepted to colleges “melt” away during the dog days of summer before their college careers begin. A new study out of Rhode Island holds promise for freezing summer melt and keeping more of America’s youth on the path to a postsecondary diploma. It also underscores the key role of school counselors in readying students for college and beyond.

In “Stemming the Tide of Summer Melt: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Post-High School Summer Intervention on Low-Income Students’ College Enrollment,” co-authors Benjamin Castleman, Karen Arnold, and Katherine Lynk Wartman found school counselors can help lessen the summer loss of prospective college students.

At seven high schools in R.I., researchers asked campus counselors to offer special college-advisory services to 81, randomly selected students between mid-June and Labor Day. The support given to these largely low-income students of color, many of whom were poised to be first-generation college-goers, ranged from financial-aid guidance, help completing college paperwork, and help coping with personal or family concerns. Counselors deliberately did not reach out to another control group of similar students.

The upshot? Kids who got the extra pre-college support were 14 percentage points more likely to enroll immediately in college and 19 percentage points more likely to follow through on the postsecondary plans they’d set during senior year. The findings led the research team to urge more high schools, colleges, and universities to build “summer bridge” programs for low-income students to ease their transition into higher education.

The study offers suggestions about what educators and policymakers can do to plug this leak in the college pipeline. Summer melt hurts both young lives and our nation’s economic potential; it is worth stopping cold.

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