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Counselors, colleges struggle through the summer to make sure students show up

In Lancaster, Pa., 43 percent of students who intended to go to college last year never enrolled. It's a phenomenon education experts call “summer melt” Students graduate with the intention of going to college, but then life happens: jobs, family and fear get in the way. The problem has likely gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, experts say. The school district of Lancaster has continued college counseling into the summer, helping students keep up with the things they need to do to stay on track for college. Students from racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those from low-income families, are more likely to experience summer melt than other students. The district uses predictive analytics to figure out which students are most at risk.

This summer a new factor is likely to be on the table for low-income students: the lure of high-paying jobs. Counselors in Lancaster try to help all students sketch out their plans, even if they're not looking at higher education. Research shows that it’s unlikely they’ll eventually go to college after taking time off to work. In 2018, of the graduating seniors who chose not to go to school immediately, only about 3 percent enrolled the next year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Communicating with a college about housing, classes and orientation is an essential part of being ready to start in the fall, as are seemingly little things, like simply getting to the campus.

Some universities have tried to give some students extra help in understanding how college works. For colleges and universities, it’s in their best interest to try to prevent summer melt. Every student, whether they intend to go to college or not, needs to have access to quality advising, expert says. "Summer melt is nothing more than a data point telling you that we have huge barriers for so many students," expert Laura Owen says. For Ntege, just having people pay attention to the problem makes a difference.