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Plan can keep college dreams alive

Fifteen thousand students are graduating from Central Texas high schools this year, and 90 percent of them say they plan to go to college in the fall. For many students, however, a great summertime chasm lies between graduation’s plans and the fall’s reality. Come August or September, research says, only 62 percent of high school graduates will enroll in college.

Doubt, fear, anxiety — these and other optimism-challenging emotions can creep into a high school graduate’s mind over the long summer and push aside plans for college. This is especially true for low-income, first-generation college students whose families are unable to help with the college enrollment process.

As the American-Statesman’s Melissa Taboada reported last week, educators call the difference between students’ college plans at graduation and their failure to enroll a few months later the “summer melt.” To their great credit, Austin, Del Valle, Hays and Pflugerville school districts are keeping 19 high school counselors on the job through the summer to try to help students who plan to go to college actually make it to college.

A few hours of encouragement and support over the summer can make the difference between a high school graduate going to college or not. Counselors will reach out to low-income, first-generation students and their families and will help them navigate financial aid, housing and other daunting college enrollment forms. And they will try to ease students’ anxiety about the new experience college brings.

As Jamie Kocian, a counselor at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, told Taboada, “We want to finish what we started here. When we find out sometime later … that the students didn’t enroll, it’s heartbreaking because I wonder if there’s something I could have done.”

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is helping the effort. The chamber has worked with the districts and Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities to develop and plan the counseling service. And, as Taboada reported, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is paying $76,800 to keep the 19 counselors on the job through the summer.

Studies have shown summer counseling intervention can help low-income students who intend to go to college stay on track to enrollment. And by helping one student actually make it to college, counselors working over the summer may be helping another student.

That’s because success with one student can build on itself. A student who stays on track to enroll in college can influence another to do the same, and that student can influence another, and so on. We all know how important peer influence is, and when a student’s friends stick to their plans to enroll in college, a student working through doubt about going to college or stumped by the process is more likely to enroll also.

Chamber officials told Taboada that they hope the summer’s intervention program increases local enrollment rates 5 percent. That’s a reasonably modest expectation given the success counseling interventions have had elsewhere. Taboada reported that in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, enrollment went up 11.4 percentage points after summer counseling was put in place.

Summer represents a “big, long, scary chunk of time,” as Sasha Duncan, a senior at Garza Independence High School who plans to attend the University of Texas, phrased it when discussing the summer counseling program with Taboada. The opportunities for second-guessing one’s plans are plentiful between high school graduation and the start of college, she said.

We applaud the effort to limit the summer melt locally. The transition from high school to college can be scary — the process and options baffling and confusing. For first-generation college students, a little support coupled with a few encouraging words can turn the temptation to back out into a determination to move forward.

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