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College-bound students run risk of 'summer melt'

The summer before his freshman year of college, David Hernández got a notice from the University of California asking him for a housing deposit he had no idea…


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Hernández - the first in his family to attend college - was oblivious to the fact that, as a minority student on financial aid, he had access to more affordable housing options. So he worked all summer, got his bill paid and made sure he secured a job close to his new campus as well. He showed up to his dorm room on the first day in uniform, fresh off his shift at a local pizza place.

At least he got there.

Many students in the same position - high school graduates who were accepted to a college or university for the fall - never arrive on campus, due to unexpected financial pressures, unfamiliarity or just plain fear. 

This phenomenon is called "summer melt." Harvard University's Strategic Data Project analyzed longitudinal data from three large public school districts, and it estimates that rates of summer melt range from 10 to 40 percent of "college-intending" students. 

The rates are even higher for students from low- and moderate-income families and for those with lower academic achievement. Melt rates are also considerably higher among students who intend to enroll at community colleges rather than four-year universities. And, as you can imagine, melt also tends to be higher at schools with greater proportions of students who qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch.

The Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas had a summer-melt rate of 48 percent in 2010, according to Harvard's study. But the rate was significantly higher for low-income and Latino graduates, who had melt rates of 56 percent and 59 percent, respectively. The melt rate for white students in the same district was 19 percent.

It should go without saying that students who are the first in their families to go to college are even likelier to "melt." And it's not always a money issue - though even students going to college on a full scholarship face unexpected expenses that threaten their carefully constructed plans. 

Sometimes they're scared to move away from a tight-knit family that may depend on them to help cover rent or food costs. Sometimes it's fear that they won't be able to hack it. And sometimes it's just plain lack of emotional support or too much pressure to be everyone's hope for a better future. 

"Emotionally, it's very challenging," said Hernández, who graduated from college and is now a professor of Latina/o & Latin American Studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "So much of what I hear during office hours revolves around either not having parental support or having it, but living with knowing that your family is sacrificing everything so you can have this one shot. It's super challenging."

Hernández serves as an unofficial academic adviser, mentor and support system for his students. For many of them, he will be the only Latino professor they come in contact with during their time in higher education. He goes out of his way to participate in campus activities welcoming Hispanic students and to reassure them and their families that they belong.

"I've spoken to parents on admissions day and told them, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of them.' But it's hard - especially for students coming from the West Coast or the Midwest - because not only are they new to the school, it's geographically like a different world to them," Hernandez said in an interview. "It's hard, because even though the school sets up family-visit weekends and other opportunities, for many of our Latino and other students of color, their families drop them off and then that's it - they can't come back until graduation."

Hernández says he's pleased that more colleges and universities are investing in reducing summer melt and making campuses welcoming, but it's still crucial to build these young adults' confidence throughout the summer.

"I tell students to save as much money as they can and get a jump on their peers by reading books and a newspaper every day so that they can be in tune with the current-events topics the professors will be bringing into the classroom," Hernández said. "And I tell them, 'Let yourself look forward to the romance of this great adventure: You'll be on your own, staying up late and meeting new people.'"

Stay strong during the summer, incoming freshmen, and know that if you feel like melting away, someone at your new school will likely be eager to help - you just have to ask.


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