Thousands of recent high school graduates across the U.S. are now enjoying their last summer before beginning college in the fall. While many will diligently complete the enrollment process by submitting deposits, selecting courses, and preparing for a move potentially far away from home, significant numbers of students from low-income communities who have been accepted into college (or might have already even enrolled) do not ultimately show up for college on day one. Rather than continuing their education and improving their life prospects, they simply “melt” away during the summer.

The problem of “Summer Melt” is a nation-wide issue that is affecting Hartford high school graduates, too. Estimates indicate, of the 90% of graduates from Hartford’s high schools who get accepted to college, only about 60% enroll in a postsecondary institution during the first year after graduation. The “Summer Melt Project,” a first-year collaborative initiative launched by the All In! Coalition and housed within Hartford’s College Supports Network is determined to change that.

Martin Estey, Executive Director of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education and convener of the College Supports Network, explains that, “This is a new collaborative for this city between the Higher Education community, the Hartford Public School District, and the community of providers that help students access college. We have been doing this individually for far too long, and this is an attempt to come together and combine our efforts to significantly boost the numbers of HPS graduates who enter college after high school.”

Alan Kramer, former Dean of Magnet Schools at Goodwin College, is helping lead this project to alleviate a complex problem that disproportionally affects students from inner-city communities.

“First generation students, especially those from urban settings like Hartford, tend to lack support systems to help them through the complex and often frustrating process of getting into and enrolling in college. School counselors aren’t available over the summer, relatively few family members have been to college, and peer pressure from friends who are not college-bound can actively discourage them in the process,” Kramer said.

A team of four college students and recent graduates have been as outreach specialists to reach out to 127 students who are not part of an existing support program and who were identified by their high schools as being at-risk of not enrolling in college this fall.

Efforts include taking student’s “college-going temperature” and helping them solve problems from completing financial aid forms, to identifying strategies for success in the unfamiliar social environments many colleges present. While some students only need friendly reminders about submitting deposits, completing medical clearance forms or selecting their first semester of classes, others require deeper assistance.

“They need support! I couldn’t have done it alone when I went to college. It’s a lot of work,” says Sabrina, one of the outreach specialists on staff. The unavailability of high school guidance counselors during the summer along with limited family support means Sabrina can then fill that critical assistance gap.

When asked what she believed helped her enroll in college on time, Mariana – another outreach specialist – described how the internships and mentors she had in high school stayed with her.  Many Hartford students do not have these extensive support networks. “In college, in many cases, you’re just a number. I want them to know that with us, you are not just a number.”

Despite their committed efforts, Sabrina and Mariana face practical challenges that may limit the impact they have this summer. Out of the 127 students they and the two other counselors are tasked with reaching out and assisting, they have been unsuccessful in even contacting 40 of them, despite repeated phone calls, texts, and emails.

Going Beyond Outreach

It’s a good thing the Summer Melt Project isn’t simply relying on outreach to get the job done.

Connecting directly to the colleges that have accepted Hartford students is the key to what makes this work systemic. The ‘systemic’ change happening here has to do with relationships newly forged between Hartford Public Schools, the greater Hartford higher education community and the various community-based organizations, and how these working relationships are sustainably changing behavior and practice.

Exciting improvements already include sharing more data, aligning attention and action to rally around and solve agreed upon high priority problems (e.g. Summer Melt), and joining forces to fix holes and leaks in our city’s talent pipeline.

This systemic work translates all the way down to programs too, with efforts by the Summer Melt Action Team driving changes to how the High School Senior Exit Survey is administered and how that data is shared and used.

That’s entirely new in Hartford and all three groups (Higher Education, HPS, college prep programs) will be mutually accountable. “This is something that I am very proud of,” adds Estey.

Bottom Line  

Going forward, the Summer Melt Project is committed to both understanding the extent of the problem and treating it for those currently affected. By collecting and analyzing data on these 127 Hartford students, the team hopes to develop a systemic solution that doesn’t require new money.

“While our immediate goal is to help as many of these students as possible overcome the obstacles they face right now,” said Kramer, “any long-term strategy requires that we identify leverage points that can better help future students. We’re collecting data on every intervention we try and the numbers of students who are actually helped by these interventions. We’ll use this information to develop strategies for the future.”