Outreach efforts target summer melt among underrepresented students

As incoming and returning students weigh the risks and rewards of sticking with their enrollment plans this fall, colleges and universities are finding ways to support their most vulnerable populations, especially low-income and first-generation students. In a recent survey conducted by SimpsonScarborough, 40 percent of incoming first-year students and 28 percent of returning students at four-year colleges said they are not likely to attend any four-year program this fall. 

Still, there’s no foolproof way to make enrollment projections, says Elizabeth Johnson, chairman of SimpsonScarborough. “The colleges are not going to know until move-in day, and then colleges have to count heads,” Johnson told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s an insane marketplace.”

The survey data, which reflects responses from 927 incoming freshmen and 905 returning students, highlights students’ apprehension around coming to campus. A greater share of students of color, in particular, reported being “very worried” about being exposed to COVID-19 on campus compared to white, non-Hispanic counterparts, underscoring the grave racial disparities in confirmed cases across Black and brown communities. A previous SimpsonScarborough study had indicated that more than 40 percent of high school seniors from underrepresented communities were uncertain whether they would attend college in the fall, compared to 24 percent of white high school seniors. 

Students of color fight to stay the course, complete degree amid COVID-19

Institutional leaders are voicing concerns about the risk for heightened “summer melt”—a term used to describe when students enroll but do not show up for classes—which is more likely now given pandemic shutdowns, students’ health concerns, and families’ financial strain. This can trigger an additional setback for students of color, who already trail behind their white counterparts in enrollment and completion rates.  

“It hurt the ego, I’m not going to lie,” recent high school graduate Isaiah Delgado, told The Chronicle of Higher Education when describing how his college plans were upended by the pandemic. Delgado, who originally planned on studying journalism at the University of Central Florida this fall and saw it as a way to “set the example” for his siblings, has now shifted his plans to enroll at the nearby College of Central Florida, which costs one-third as much.  

For incoming first-generation students like Delgado, losing out on the college experience could hold heavy repercussions, including undoing meaningful progress in degree completion for low-income students and students of color. Despite the current uncertainty, leaders in higher ed are urging low-income and minority students to remember the importance of pursuing and completing a degree. “We have to keep the pipeline open for Latinx and other diverse students,” said David Ortiz, senior vice president for operations at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “We have to make sure they make it to campus, with either the step of a foot or the click of a mouse.”


Financial Aid and COVID-19

Charlene Brown-McKenzie, director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and Missy Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholars Program, discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students who rely on financial aid.

Colleges, students look to rebound from derailed expectations for the fall

Colleges and universities also are looking for ways to ramp up support for students, connect with them from afar, and help learners gain momentum. 

Related: Vulnerable students will need high-touch support this fall, experts say >

According to Inside Higher Ed, some schools like Fairfield University in Connecticut and Bentley University in Massachusetts have sought to engage students and counteract low enrollment predictions by offering some free online courses. As a means of addressing the dearth of employment opportunities for students this summer, other institutions have offered summer jobs for undergraduates—many of whom rely on that income to fund college costs—mentoring incoming freshmen to prevent summer melt and tutoring elementary students. 

“These college coaches are the people who need this work the most, and also the most qualified to be doing this work,” Laura Myers, City University of New York’s associate director of college counseling initiatives, told The Hechinger Report. CUNY’s College Bridge for All program has hired an additional 80 students this summer as college coaches to assist students with financial aid form completion, enrollment, and late admission applications. 

Noting that many of the coaches are key emotional and financial players in their respective families, Myers says the coaches play a vital role not only in supporting prospective students but also in building a broader college-going culture. “[These coaches] will be doing college advising for the rest of their life,” she said. “Because they will be talking to a cousin, or a nephew or someone who wants to go to college someday and they know how to navigate the system.”

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