Why some students are no-shows on the first day of college

August 29, 2013

President Barack Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y. about his plan to make college more affordable. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

This is the season when newly minted freshman go off to college. They’ve studied hard. They’ve earned admission to the college or university of their choice. Would it surprise you to know that somewhere between 20% and 30% of college-bound youngsters who’ve been accepted, awarded financial aid and agree to attend never actually show up on the first day? Would it surprise you to know that nearly all of the “summer melt” — as college administrators call it — is made up of  low-income students without college-educated parents to guide them?

What happens to them?

Bob Giannino Racine who runs UAspire,  a nonprofit that helps low-income students figure out how to pay for college, knows. Last spring, when the students got their financial aid letters, their eyes were filled with hopes and dreams. Their high school counselors and teachers — especially those who had sung the “college-for-all” mantra — were thrilled. Then summer came, and the cheering died away and there was plenty of time to take a good look at those award letters. Those “full ride” packages turned out to include a lot of loans. (Hint: You’re gonna pay for a long, long time.) And the idea of taking on $10,000, even $20,000 a year when your parents make $60,000 a year: “Well, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea by the time August rolled around,” Giannino Racine says. But now, of course, it is too late to apply and get financial aid at another, more cost effective institution.

For some students, unanticipated expenses associated with college enrollment get in the way. Alexandra Bernadotte runs Beyond 12, another nonprofit, which tracks what happens to kids everyone thinks are college bound after they leave high school. She says that surprisingly small costs derail these vulnerable students — a $500 housing deposit, airfare to the college of their choice. The economics here become maddeningly granular: A $300 airline ticket might allow a student to travel to the college of their choice and take advantage of a $40,000 a year scholarship. But, says Bernadotte “if you haven’t got $300, you haven’t got it.” This, while affluent college freshman are spending $500 to make sure their lampshades match their duvet covers — and not giving it a second thought. Listening to Giannino Racine and Bernadotte discuss “summer melt” makes me wonder: Are colleges turning their backs on low-income students on purpose? If 30 percent of your customers don’t show up, do you think there might be something wrong with the way you are doing business? Could it be that the unspoken secret here is that colleges are really for the affluent? (See above: Duvet and matching lampshade.)

I’m looking at the president’s plan to improve access to higher education, which judges schools by graduation rate. But how about dinging colleges for not reaching out to the students who are accepted, enroll, but never show up? We need to make an effort to help these smart, motivated vulnerable kids.

 

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Mary C. Curtis · August 29, 2013