The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students are dropping out of college before even starting. Here’s how educators are trying to stop the trend.

Tamia Washington, 17, helps set up a prekindergarten classroom at Browne Education Campus in Northeast Washington, where her mother is a teacher. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Every spring, thousands of high school seniors in the District make plans to go to college. Every summer, many of their ambitions get shelved as graduates miss registration deadlines, overlook the fine print in financial aid packages or shift course because of worries about jobs and money.

The phenomenon known as “summer melt,” which sidetracks an estimated 10 percent or more of college plans nationwide, hits teenagers from low-income families harder than others. That poses a major challenge for the colleges recruiting those students and for a nation seeking to upgrade the education of its workforce. When students accept an admission offer, experts know, that’s no guarantee they will show up on campus.

“Hey sorry, I won’t be attending college for this fall semester,” one graduate wrote in June in a text message to the nonprofit District of Columbia College Access Program. “Trying to figure myself out first.”

“I can’t go to school,” another texted in July. “I can’t afford it.”

But Tamia Washington is not budging. The 17-year-old from Southeast Washington graduated in June from McKinley Technology High School and is headed to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. She was in Princess Anne, Md., when residence halls opened Thursday. Over and over, she had made her plans clear in texts and conversations this summer with a small squadron of advisers who are fighting the melt trend, hoping to keep Washington and others like her on track.

“It’ll be great for me,” Washington said. She is thinking about a career as a math teacher. College, she said, “is not the only way, but it’s the way for what I want to do.”

Colleges have long dealt with flux in their incoming classes. Even among students who pay a deposit to secure a seat, some waffle until the last minute and then enroll elsewhere. Some decide to stay home and look for a job. Others defer entry and take a “gap year.” In these cases, schools often use waiting lists or continue to recruit in the summer to fill vacancies. Selective colleges usually know their annual melt rate so well that it factors into how many students they admit.

But in recent years, the national push to draw more disadvantaged students into higher education has cast a spotlight on how many high school seniors who seem to be college-bound fail to enroll and what can be done to help them.

In 2013, Harvard University researchers examined data on college-bound high school graduates in Boston and nationally and found that about 10 to 20 percent failed to enroll. The melt rate was significantly higher, they found, for students from lower-income families. Many would have been among the first in their families to go to college.

“It’s a loss if the educational system is helping students to get that far, and students are faltering in the transition to postsecondary education,” said report co-author Lindsay C. Page, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh.

To combat the problem, Georgia State University experimented in 2016 with automated texts to guide incoming students on financial aid and enrollment. Had they finished the Free Application for Federal Student Aid? Had they submitted their final high school transcript? Did they have a tuition payment plan, and had they made a housing deposit? Did they know about freshman orientation?

Results suggested that the additional communication cut Georgia State’s melt rate three percentage points, to 12 percent. In many cases, Page said, text messages like these function as “a stand-in for a nagging parent” who can remind students of their to-do list.

Skeptics say high school graduates need time and space to settle on their path. Maybe it is wise, they say, to pause before taking out a major student loan or going to college unprepared.

“The more that others do for you, it can hinder what you do for yourself,” said Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. “The texting intervention is essentially industrial-scale parenting. Some kids might need that extra push. But with other kids, it might hurt them.”

Enrolling in college should not be the primary goal, Greene said. “Success is finishing.”

Educators and advisers in the nation’s capital are trying to maximize the number who complete college. The first step, they say, is to ensure students get there.

Every year, the D.C. College Access Program counsels about 3,300 seniors in the city’s public high schools. Ninety percent have a college plan by the time they graduate, said Argelia Rodriguez, the program’s president and chief executive. Some intend to go to an open-access community college; others, to four-year schools. Historically black universities are popular. But by September, only a little more than 60 percent matriculate.

Rodriguez said the graduates often worry about money. A parent might have lost a job. The family might have to move. Someone might be pregnant. Tuition and other expenses may be larger than expected.

But the hurdles aren’t just financial. When students finish high school, they lose much of their support network of teachers and mentors. Doubts about college can creep in when friends choose not to go.

During the summer, Rodriguez said, “we’ve got to push back.”

In May, the program began texting graduating seniors citywide with weekly reminders about college-going tasks, an effort similar to Georgia State’s. A team from American University’s school of education monitors the replies and engages in texting conversations with those who ask for help. Rodriguez said preliminary evidence from a trial run last year showed promising results.

On July 23, after a recent high school graduate texted “I can’t go to school” and “I can’t afford it,” a member of the AU response team replied, “I am sorry,” and urged the graduate to come to the college access program to discuss options.

“Isn’t it over?” the graduate asked. Not necessarily, the responder said. Advisers were available to help.

“It’s worth a shot,” the graduate said.

Cheyenne Gartin, an American University graduate student participating in the project, said these types of exchanges happen at all hours. Often, college-bound students hunt for help via texts after midnight. Gartin aims to connect them with a phone number or email for sources at their college who can provide answers. “Just giving them the appropriate information so they’re not at a loss,” she said.

Some incoming students lack crucial information. AU research associate professor Laura Owen recalled a text asking whether students have checked their accounts through a college-designated online portal. Some, Owen said, replied: “What portal?”

For Washington, the texts that peppered her iPhone provided a useful backstop for her plans to attend the 3,500-student public university. Through the texts, she obtained phone numbers to confirm her eligibility for a scholarship from the college access program, understand her financial aid award letter and check the status of a student loan. For out-of-state students, tuition and fees are about $18,500 a year. But room and board and other expenses push the total cost to more than $30,000. Washington qualifies for a federal Pell Grant and other aid to lower the bill.

Washington is not a first-generation student and says she never doubted she would go to college. Her mother, Joreather Settles, a prekindergarten teacher for D.C. Public Schools, graduated from Trinity Washington University. Washington had considered Northern Virginia Community College but chose UMES in part because the Eastern Shore campus, about 2½ hours away, was neither too far from home nor too close.

The summer texts were the latest of many efforts to encourage Washington’s educational ambitions. During high school, Washington received counseling from the college access program and an adviser with the KIPP education network. (She attended one of the city’s KIPP middle schools.)

Washington said the extensive, multilayered support strengthens her resolve to earn a bachelor’s degree: “All the help I’m getting, it has to pay off in the end.”