Up to four out of 10 low-income college students never start school the fall after graduating, despite being accepted, according to a Harvard Education Press piece. This melting away of students who should have, but never do arrive to a post-secondary school in the fall is aptly named summer melt.
While other factors contribute to these low-income students not attending school, financial difficulties play a large role in the reason these students don’t make it to campus in the fall. Specifically, financial difficulties that aren’t solved by financial aid for many reasons, including:
- Financial aid process was too complicated
- Student did not receive enough financial aid to afford school
- Student and/or parents are afraid of taking on debt to pay for school
- Student and/or parents missed an important deadline
- Student’s parents are unwilling to provide sensitive information for verification
- And more.
If would-be students of your college or university are bottlenecked at the financial aid process, what can you and your staff do to alleviate this? Below we offer suggestions for getting those low-income students through the financial aid process and into the classrooms.
A program called College Access: Research and Action (CARA) has trained about three dozen college students to guide roughly 75 high school graduates through the process of enrolling in college. Each college student spends about 15 hours a week with the high school grad, most often helping them navigate issues with financial aid.
The mentors report major hiccups for these low-income (often first generation) students, including when one student thought a “subsidized government loan” was the same thing as a grant. Another student thought he couldn’t receive any grants, because his mother is undocumented and works under the table. Instead, he just needed a letter from his mother’s employer to verify her income.
Peer-to-peer counseling can be very effective, because young people listen better to other young people. It also shows these recent high school grads that someone cares that they make it to college, which may be a first-time experience for some students. Lastly, the mentors are close to the process – having just completed a year or two before – and can show these students compassion and understanding, while encouraging them to persevere.
During the summer following graduation, students are left mostly to their own devices. Their high school counselors are on break, and they haven’t yet met their college counselors. During this time, students can lose sight of why they wanted to attend college and, thus, small obstacles will prove insurmountable. Bridge programs ease the transition to college and help students prepare, showing soon-to-be freshmen what life will be like in college and also giving them the opportunity to make friends. One program, at St. Mary’s College, has students attend seminars lead by actual college professors, live together in the dorms and learn time-management.
The California Student Opportunity and Access Program (Cal-SOAP) also offers support to low-income and first-generation students in the region. This support includes advising, tutoring, parent outreach, after-school programs and college awareness workshops to 14 regions of school districts, called consortia, across the state. One consortium, South County Gilroy Consortium, offered tutoring and counseling to about 450 seniors. Of those, 94% enrolled in college in the following fall.
Your institution should analyze how many students it’s losing due to summer melt to determine if a bridge program would be a worthy investment. Bridge program curriculum can vary, depending on what your students need the most.
If it seems like too much work, consider this: St. Mary’s keeps its rate of summer melt to about 5%. That’s considerably better than the average 40% others schools experience.
Simplify Financial Aid Process
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is complicated, especially for first generation students whose parents have never attended college and might not speak English as a first language. To make matters worse, about one third of students are selected for verification, a process complicated by:
- Confusion about what verification is
- Confusion about how to get verified
- Complicated financial aid jargon
- Time spent hunting down documentation
- Parents refusing to supply sensitive information
- Parental language barrier
- Delays due to parents and students living in separate states
Software platforms like StudentVerification make many of these problems disappear. Parents and students are able to easily submit documentation through a guided, Turbo Tax-like portal. Students are prompted by text or email to submit required documents. Documents can then be photographed and uploaded via smartphone or scanned in. Students and parents are led through filling out forms with little “more info” options to help with confusing terms or questions. The entire experience is like having a financial aid adviser walking them through each step from the comfort of their home.
The financial aid process is complicated – that’s partly why compliance is such a burden.
Why not make it easier on first-generation students and their parents by housing the entire verification process in one place? No more “Fax this document here, and we’ll follow up by phone” or “bring this document in and wait in line for an hour to give it to us.” And no more time wasted as the financial aid department chases down lagging documents from students and their parents.
To learn more about StudentVerification, call 602.643-1300 or fill out this form.