College completion: Preventing fall falter

We’ve had an ongoing national conversation about the problem of summer melt, where low-income high school seniors with college plans in place at graduation fail to matriculate at their chosen college campus come fall. Such students often grapple with obstacles, financial and familial, that get in the way of mastering the complex financial and procedural tasks needing completion in that critical summer after high school.

But largely absent from the conversation are students facing the fall falter.  Though they confront many of the same challenges as their peers who melt away in summer, these students manage to barely stagger over the fall matriculation threshold.

Limping through first semester

Why are these students limping through their first few months at college? There are a few reasons this might occur:

  • They haven’t come up with a sustainable plan to pay for college.
  • They haven’t figured out how to juggle demanding college courses with paid work that helps support their families.
  • They haven’t sorted out other family obligations such as caring for younger siblings or setting up child care.

These fall falter students are at risk of burning out and dropping out. And they may even find themselves in worse shape—mired in debt, saddled with poor credit, and feeling like they’ve failed—than those summer melt students who never started college in the first place.

It’s encouraging that the education sector is finding innovative ways to better manage the summer transition from high school graduate to college freshman in the fall.

The right support at the right time

We know more than a quarter of low-income first-generation students leave after their first year of college —four times the dropout rate of higher income students. And college dropouts are among the most likely to default on student loans, falling behind at a rate four times that of graduates. A recent Federal Reserve survey found nearly 38 percent of respondents dropped out because of family responsibilities. About 24 percent said college was too expensive to complete.

Like many organizations helping low-income students get to and through college, we see the summer between high school and college as a critical—and potentially vulnerable—time for students. Helping students identify potential obstacles in the fall semester is crucial.

Without proper guidance, many of our Dell Scholars could have easily become a fall falter statistic.  A few examples of the type of support we provide to help students avoid fall falter:

  • We provide guidance about affordability to students who sometimes are set on attending a dream school. By helping them understand the cost of the school, we are able to direct students to different four-year universities with more sustainable financial aid packages.
  • We assist students with understanding their financial-aid award letters. There are often gaps in the offers where students will be required to pay a certain amount, and we help them to understand and plan for those gaps.
  • We review a typical school week for students to help them strike a realistic balance between a job and classes.
  • We work with mothers to find affordable child care and housing, and we guide them through the process of having these expenses included in their cost of attendance.
  • We coach students through difficult conversations with family about how much they can continue to rely on the student to help at home.

Shifting the focus from enrollment

It’s encouraging that the education sector is finding innovative ways to better manage the summer transition from high school graduate to college freshman in the fall.  There is an increased recognition that focusing solely on supporting students in enrolling in college misses the mark.  Many organizations are realizing that there is a critical need to support students after enrollment during the summer and beyond.

From teachers to counselors to universities, everyone has a role in making sure students get the careful help they need to transition from high school to college on time, intact and ready to learn. Stumbling through the campus gates in the fall is no way for any student to launch a successful college career.