Guidance Gap

College dreams often melt away in summer months. ‘Near-peer’ counseling is helping keep them alive.

Eight years in, a program that helps low-income students stay on track to college is spreading — and showing results

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"summer melt"

Monnojan Tasnia, a 19-year-old who moved to New York City from Bangladesh four years ago, works with her Bridge Coach, Ruth Camacho, at the International High School for Health Sciences in Elmhurst, Queens.

NEW YORK — Monnojan Tasnia needed all the pieces to fit together. The 19-year-old, who moved to New York City from Bangladesh four years ago, was trying to envision her fall: Four days of classes each week at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech).* Two to three days working as a cashier at Marshalls. Long commutes on the subway between her home in Queens and the campus in downtown Brooklyn.

She had friends whose college dreams evaporated once they started summer jobs, their paychecks providing a sense of security that a college acceptance letter could not. But Tasnia was determined to make it to campus in September. “My family always says, ‘If you get addicted to work, you might stop your studies,’ ” said Tasnia, who wants to become an accountant.

On this sunny July day, she’d come back to her old school, the International High School for Health Sciences, in Elmhurst, Queens, for some advice on balancing college with ways to pay for it. Most urgently, she needed help setting up a direct deposit account for her financial aid. Her counselor, Ruth Camacho, turned on her desktop computer, pulled up a chair for Tasnia and logged into the Bursar’s Office page of the City Tech website.

For aspiring college students, the summer before freshman year can be a perilous time, as they contend with swelling concerns over how to pay for college, often inscrutable paperwork and uncertainty about whether they belong on a college campus at all. Low-income students and those who are first in their families to enroll in higher education are particularly vulnerable. Research shows that up to 40 percent of low-income students who are accepted to college succumb to what’s known as “summer melt” and don’t make it to the first day of classes in the fall. At the same time, programs to fight this phenomenon are expanding amid a growing body of research suggesting that they work.

Camacho isn’t a professional counselor. At 22, she’s just a few years older than Tasnia. But the incoming Queens College junior has been trained by the nonprofit College Access: Research and Action (CARA) to help guide students like Tasnia through the transition to college. Camacho, a graduate of nearby Pan American International High School, works 10 hours a week through CARA’s College Bridge program at the Queens high school. In addition to in-person coaching sessions, she fields text messages from students, gets on the phone with college officials to sort out financial aid snafus and even accompanies young people to their college campuses to visit financial aid and advisory offices and meet with staff.

“Even though my students might have the physical address, and they know where they need to go, they still need my help sometimes. One student went to the college, but it was so big, he got nervous and walked right out,” said Camacho. “So I go with them to their college and connect them to programs and people who can provide one-on-one support. I always push my students to join a club or program. I don’t want them to feel alone.”

"summer melt"

Gabriela Galindo, 18, stops by Bridge Coach Ruth Camacho’s office to verify her class enrollment at LaGuardia Community College where she plans to start classes this fall.

Started in 2011, the College Bridge program now has 45 coaches in 35 high schools serving 3,800 students, according to administrators. Over time it has morphed into a year-round program, so coaches can help students with the college application process and build close relationships that make it easier for students and coaches to stay connected during the summer. Some coaches have been returning year after year; and some, including Camacho, aspire to become professional college counselors and help plug a shortage of school counselors in the city and nationwide. In 2016, the New York City Department of Education rolled out its own version of the model at high schools throughout the city.

Studies suggest that when it comes to fighting summer melt, programs that rely on human interaction — in the form of one-to-one counseling, “near-peer” coaching (like CARA’s, in which college students coach high school students), workshops and personalized communication — may hold the most promise. Results from the CARA College Bridge program show a 12 percent increase in postsecondary enrollment at high schools where coaches have been providing college prep support for two years. According to a 2018 analysis, more than three-quarters of high school seniors who received coaching through the New York City Department of Education’s program matriculated to college in the fall, versus just over half of high school graduates who had not participated. However, the impact of a recent, less personal effort by the College Board, the creator of the SAT, was negligible, according to a report published this year. The College Board targeted 785,000 high school seniors with text-message reminders, email nudges and college application fee waivers.

“Efforts to support students through the summer after high school have expanded substantially in recent years,” said Ben Castleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and co-author of a book on summer melt. But while New York’s efforts to stem summer melt are part of a broader trend, intensive coaching programs like CARA’s are still relatively rare, Castleman said, and “there’s a lot of promise to this approach.”

Related: Why are low-income students not showing up to college, even though they have been accepted?

"summer melt"

Ruth Camacho, left, attends a College Bridge training session. Camacho receives 70 hours of training each year to help her be a college coach for high school seniors.

Camacho is in her third year as a coach. In that role, she receives 70 hours of training throughout the year and works 10 hours a week, earning the city minimum wage of $15 per hour. This summer, she is working with Tasnia and 66 other students. Having moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 11, Camacho can identify with many of the struggles her advisees face.*

“Being a first-generation student, asking for help isn’t easy,” said Camacho, who is studying psychology. “When I started college, I was too afraid to ask anything. I was terrified of being dismissed for being a Latina who didn’t know anything. College is hard and people expect you to know a lot, but you really don’t.”

She recalls spending three head-spinning weeks of her freshman year in Math 260, a precalculus class, falling behind on her assignments and struggling to make sense of the lectures. Eventually, her professor realized that Camacho was sitting in the wrong class — her name wasn’t on his student roster — and sent her to an advisor who promptly redirected Camacho to an algebra class that was at a more appropriate level.

In a sense, Camacho was lucky to make it to college at all. She’d dreamed of attending the State University of New York at Albany — before learning how expensive it was. Camacho rejiggered her plans, deciding to spend two years at Queensborough Community College, earning an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences, before continuing on to a four-year school. “Since I’m the first one in my family to go to college, we didn’t know about eligibility for FAFSA or TAP,” she said, referring to federal and state aid programs. “Coming from a family with seven kids, my dad could not help pay for the university. I had to change all my college plans.”

The designers of the College Bridge program had these sorts of experiences in mind when they began recruiting students like Camacho to provide near-peer counseling.

“Everyone understands that young people listen to other young people differently than they do to adults,” said Heather Cristol, assistant principal of the high school where Camacho works. “Ruth just had, and is still having, the experience that all these kids are having. She has an understanding that I could never have. She can not only say: ‘I just went through this,’ but she can say: ‘Here’s what I did.’ That all makes her able to better support kids.”

During the school year, Camacho works alongside the high school’s two full-time guidance counselors. During the summer, she is on her own — though she checks in regularly with her supervisor.

"summer melt"

Ruth Camacho, who moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 11, strategizes during a training session about how to reach out to students during the summer.

Three years ago, recognizing the vast gaps in support for students across its city high schools, the New York City Department of Education opened its College Bridge for All program, or CB4A. Operated in partnership with the City University of New York, the program’s 117 student coaches (all of them New York City high school graduates, most of them enrolled at CUNY colleges) serve roughly 12,000 high school seniors in 89 high schools, according to Laura Myers, the CUNY lead for College Bridge for All.

Coaches in CB4A receive 40 hours of training and work 5 hours per week in April and May and 15 hours from June to August, earning an hourly wage of $17.* CB4A is primarily funded by the Department of Education, to the tune of approximately $1 million last year, whereas CARA requires participating high schools to foot the bill, roughly $10,000 per coach per year. Asking high schools to fund their own coaches elevates their commitment to the program, maximizing the chances of it surviving a shift in priorities or budget tightening at the education agency, said Janice Bloom, co-director of the CARA program.

“Schools need to have enough skin in the game,” said Bloom. “We don’t think the city’s model is sustainable because schools don’t end up being committed in the same way.” (A Department of Education spokesperson said there is sustained support for the program and that the agency doesn’t anticipate changes to it.)

People who work in college advising also say peer coaching programs like these aren’t a substitute for having a full-time college counselor in every high school. Since 2015, the Department of Education has been trying to help more students into college and careers through an effort known as College Access for All, by training school staff in college-and-career planning and holding events such as “SAT Day” and “College Application Week.” But only about a quarter of schools she works with have a full-time college counselor, estimates Bloom; in most cases, counselors balance college prep responsibilities with tasks like helping students organize their schedules and cope with mental health needs.

Castleman, the University of Virginia professor, said that comprehensive college advising programs that have full-time, dedicated staff likely offer students the best shot at college. Still, he said, peer coaching programs like CARA’s and CB4A can play an important role so long as coaches are properly trained and receive support from professional staff. “The benefits of the peer mentor approach,” he said, “can outweigh some of the potential shortcomings.”

Related: “I thought everyone else deserved to be there and I didn’t.”

"summer melt"

College Bridge operates year-round, allowing coaches like Ruth Camacho to get to know their students and support them through the college and financial aid application process.

At the International High School for Health Sciences, all summer long, Camacho kept smoothing out her students’ problems as quickly as they popped up. She discovered in July, for example, that City Tech was charging Tasnia the tuition for international students, significantly higher than the rate for which she qualified. Camacho immediately dispatched her advisee to City Tech to sort out the error, armed with a copy of her high school diploma and transcript. Then, just three weeks before Tasnia’s first day of classes, Camacho discovered that Tasnia wasn’t receiving a critical part of her financial aid package for the fall semester, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program, known as TAP. Once more, Camacho sent her student to the college campus, this time for a meeting with a financial aid advisor.

“The college process is really difficult now,” said Tasnia via text, noting that she’d had an issue with TAP, “but I went to school and talked to Miss Ruth.”

For Camacho, just like her students, juggling school and work is an ongoing challenge. Last year, in addition to her coaching job and attending college classes three days a week, she worked 25 hours each week as a supermarket cashier. But Camacho might soon have a chance to cut down on those hours.

The International High School for Health Sciences has asked her to help fill in for one of its counselors who is going on maternity leave this fall. Once the counselor returns, the school will try to secure enough funding so that Camacho’s hours will be nearly full time, said the school’s principal, Anthony Finney.

“I think it will be amazing to be able to work less at the supermarket and do something here that I really like and might work in as a career,” said Camacho, with characteristic modesty. “The school is so kind to let me do this almost full time. That’s a big help for me personally, doing something I love.”

Tasnia is counting down the days to the start of her college career. In Bangladesh, she said, “They don’t have support or financial aid like here. No teachers or counselors are able to help you like Miss Ruth.”

Caroline Preston contributed reporting to this story.

*This story has been updated to reflect that Ruth Camacho arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic and Monnojan Tasnia from Bangladesh. It also clarifies the hours of training provided to coaches through CB4A.

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